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Sandhill Crane Festival

Beginning in the early 1990’s the recovering population of eastern Sandhill cranes began stopping at the Hiwassee Refuge as they migrated to and from their wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida.

TWRA has been managing this refuge for more than 60 years for waterfowl.  Therefore, cranes find a perfect combination of areas for feeding and roosting.

As many as 12,000 cranes have been known to overwinter at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers.

The 28th Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival will be held January 19-20, 2019 at the Birchwood Community Center

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is happy to host the 2019 Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival in Birchwood on January 19-20 from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily. Olan Chlor will once again sponsor the event. The festival includes the popular American Eagle Foundation, recording artists 2ND Nature, a main speaker, folk singers and arts and craft vendors.

The Cherokee Memorial is once again hosting Native Americans folklorists and crafts throughout the weekend. This inspiring place evokes responsibility and remembrance of our acts as a nation. The memorial also serves as a place of celebration for a people still thriving with a rich tradition and culture.

The entire region buzzes with birds and birdwatchers alike. Along with the star of the weekend, the Sandhill crane, many types of waterfowl, bald eagles, golden eagles, white pelicans and even whooping cranes are spotted each year. Free buses run the short distance from the Birchwood Community Center to the Hiwassee Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial. Both the memorial and refuge provide great birding opportunities, with views of the Hiwasseee. Volunteers and scopes are set up at each location to help novice birders or curious visitors.

Beginning in the early 1990’s the recovering population of eastern Sandhill cranes began stopping at the Hiwassee Refuge as they migrated to and from their wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida. TWRA has been managing this refuge for more than 60 years for waterfowl. Therefore, cranes find a perfect combination of areas for feeding and roosting. As many as 12,000 cranes have been known to overwinter at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers.

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Meigs County information:

*Other Sandhill Crane Festival partners include the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association, Tennessee Ornithological Society, Birchwood Area Society Improvement Council, Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, Cleveland State Community College, American Eagle Foundation, Chattanooga Chapter TOS, Meigs County Tourism, and Rhea County Tourism.

Whether you’re an avid birder or you’ve never seen a Sandhill Crane before, the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival represents an extraordinary opportunity to witness a natural phenomenon that is truly unforgettable.

The Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival is held every year at the Hiwassee Refuge and at the Birchwood Community Center.

TWRA is always excited to host the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival.  The festival also inlcudes live music and crafts.

Biology & History

The modern era of sandhill crane hunting in Tennessee began with the late waterfowl season on November 28, 2013 and ran through January 1, 2014. The US, Canada and Mexico manage sandhill crane harvest through the same regulatory mechanisms as waterfowl and other migratory game birds. Listed as a game species, many central US states, Canadian provinces and Mexico have been hunting cranes for over 50 years and all populations are stable or increasing. Hunting in the eastern US was closed until Kentucky’s 2011 season and then Tennessee’s 2013 season.

North American Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes are the most numerous and wide ranging of all worldwide crane species with a population exceeding 600,000. There are six distinct migratory populations of sandhill cranes with breeding ranges extending across North America. During migration, sandhill cranes congregate in large numbers at staging areas of mid-latitude states and then migrate to wintering areas in the southern US and Mexico. Hunting occurs on four of the six migratory sandhill crane populations with over 26,000 cranes harvested annually.
The hunting of sandhill cranes continues to grow in popularity since the first US hunts in 1961.

The Eastern Population of sandhill cranes has undergone am impressive recovery by rebounding from an estimated 25 breeding pairs in the 1930s to a minimum population of over 87,000 in recent years. The core breeding range lies in south-central Ontario, Michigan, and Wisconsin extending into adjacent Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Quebec. In recent years this breeding range has expanded east to include several of the New England states, as well as south, including Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa. The Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways are the main migratory routes of the Eastern Population. These cranes winter primarily in Florida and Georgia though recently cranes are wintering further north in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and even southern Ontario.

Tennessee Sandhill Cranes

The sandhill cranes migrating or wintering in Tennessee make up a large proportion of the Eastern Population. The Eastern Population of sandhill cranes migrates through and winters in portions of Tennessee and is considered the world’s second largest sandhill crane population. Tennessee has wintered an average of over 23,000 cranes over the last five years. Two areas serve as primary migration and wintering areas including the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge where thousands can be seen at one time. Hop-in Refuge and surrounding lands near the Reelfoot Lake in west Tennessee attract several thousand sandhill cranes as well. Smaller groups of cranes can be seen scattered across the Tennessee landscape too.

Aldo Leopold, an ecologist and the founder of the science of wildlife management, once wrote about the Sandhill Crane, "When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution." The call of the Sandhill Crane will carry more than a mile, and can be heard across Tennessee as this majestic bird passes high overhead during migration, or when stopping in the state to spend the winter. The Sandhill Crane breeds from western Alaska through the Canadian tundra to the northern United States, with scattered populations in the west, and non-migratory populations in Mississippi and Florida. It winters in the southern United States and northern Mexico. This species was nearly decimated in the east by breeding habitat loss and over hunting in the 1800s, and is now making a comeback. Populations have increased over the last 60 years and we may now find over 20,000 cranes in the Hiwassee River area of southeastern Tennessee in winter with thousands seen from the Observation Platform. There's an estimated minimum 89,000 Sandhil Cranes in the eastern population that passes through and winters in Tennessee. The Sandhill Crane stands over 4 feet tall, with a wingspan stretching more than 6 feet, making it one of the largest birds found in Tennessee.

Description: This tall, long necked, and long legged bird is overall gray, with a large tuft of feathers at the rump. The top of the head is red, which is actually red skin, and the cheek is a bright white. Young birds are overall mottled gray and brown, with a non-contrasting feathered head. Males and females look alike with the male somewhat larger. All species of cranes fly with their necks outstretched.
Length: 4 to 5 feet tall
Wingspan: 5 to 6 feet
Weight: 10 to 14 lbs

Voice: The call is described as a trumpeting, or bugling, or a resonating, wooden rattle, which can carry long distances. Mated pairs of cranes engage in "unison calling," where the cranes stand close together, calling in a synchronized and complex duet. The call of young birds can be easily distinguished and resembles a musical purr.

Similar Species:

  • Whooping Cranes in their first year may be confused with Sandhill Cranes, but usually have some white below, not gray. Adult Whooping Cranes are overall white with black wing tips. Whooping Cranes are rare in Tennessee, but are often found in the same fields with Sandhill Cranes.
  • Great Blue Herons are smaller, have no red on the head, and fly with their necks curled against the body instead of straight out. They are generally solitary in winter and usually forage close to water. Sandhill Cranes typically occur in flocks with a few to several thousand individuals in winter.

Habitat: Migrating and wintering Sandhill Cranes are found in wet grasslands, marshes, and grain fields.

Diet: Cranes are omnivorous, eating seeds, berries, cultivated grains, insects, and small mammals from the surface of the ground as well as probing into soil and mud.

Nesting and reproduction: The Sandhill Crane is a long-lived species (20 years or more) and does not successfully breed until 5 to 7 years old, and has one of the lowest reproductive rates of any bird in North America (only one nest in 3 produces a chick that survives to migrate in the fall). Interesting fact is that they mate for life.

Clutch Size: Ranges from 1 to 2 eggs.

Incubation: Males and females incubate the eggs for 29 to 32 days.

Fledging: On average, less than one chick is produced per nest. Young birds forage, roost, and migrate with their parents, usually staying within a few meters of them, for 9 to 10 months.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis, Adult. Photo Credit: Dave Hawkins
Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis, Adult. Photo Credit: Dave Hawkins

Photo Gallery

Click on an image for a larger view.

Sandhill Crane, Range Map
Sandhill Crane, Range Map

Status in Tennessee: The Sandhill Crane is an uncommon migrant and locally common winter resident in Tennessee, though numbers appear to be increasing. Fall migration lasts from late October to late December and spring migration is from mid-February through late March. A few thousand cranes have also been wintering at Hop-In Refuge in Obion County, and over ten thousand on and around the Hiwassee Refuge in Meigs County.

Dynamic map of Sandhill Crane eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Sandhill Cranes only started wintering in Tennessee in the 1990s.
  • The only historical observation of Sandhill Cranes during the winter in Tennessee is from an observation reported by John James Audubon in November 1820 of a large flocks of cranes in the vicinity of the Shelby/Tipton County line.
  • There are 6 subspecies of Sandhill Cranes in North America. It is the Greater Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis tabida that migrates through and winters in Tennessee.
  • The oldest known Sandhill Crane was 36 years 7 months old.
  • A Miocene crane fossil, thought to be about ten million years old, was found in Nebraska and is structurally identical to the modern Sandhill crane, making it the oldest known bird species still surviving!

Obsolete English Names: little brown crane, crane

Best places to see in Tennessee: In spring and fall Sandhill Cranes migrate through the state using a corridor that is roughly centered on Pickett and Clay Counties and runs south-southeastwards toward Bradley and Monroe Counties. Wintering populations can be found at the Hiwassee Refugein Meigs County, and Hop-in Refuge in Obion County. Their habit of congregating near the Watchable Wildlife viewing platform at the Hiwassee Refuge from mid-October through February (sometimes into March) provides Tennesseans with one of the most spectacular wildlife watching opportunities in the state

For more information:


Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbitt, and P. A. Vohs. 1992. Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis). The Birds of North America, No. 31 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.