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2019-20 Tennessee Hunting and Trapping Guide Now Available

Sandhill Crane

Festival

sandhill

The 2020 Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival is set for:

January 18-19, at the Hiwassee Refuge and Birchwood Community Center.

THIS IS A FREE FESTIVAL, THE BIRCHWOOD SCHOOL IS LOCATED AT 5623 TN-60, Birchwood, TN 37308

Vendor Application | How to gain access to the festival

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is the primary sponsor for the festival and many staff members and volunteers will again be contributing their services. 

The festival is a celebration of the thousands of sandhill cranes that migrate through or spend the winter on and around the Hiwassee Refuge in Birchwood as well as an opportunity to focus attention on the rich wildlife heritage of the state and the Native American history of the area.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the recovering population of eastern sandhill cranes began stopping at the Hiwassee Refuge on their way to and from their wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida.

TWRA has been managing the refuge for more than 60 years for waterfowl, and it provides sandhill cranes a combination of feeding and shallow water roosting habitat.

Thousands of birds now spend the entire winter at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers.

 Music, special programs, and children’s activities will be ongoing throughout each day.  

Along with the wildlife viewing at the refuge, wildlife and birding experts will be on site.

They will provide visitors with a unique educational experience by sharing information and viewing scopes.

The Hiwassee Refuge comprises about 6,000 acres.

The Birchwood Community Center is only three miles from the wildlife-viewing site at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. 

The Cherokee Removal Memorial is found just to the side of the refuge near the Tennessee River.

Photo Gallery

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.

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.

Biology

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. 

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.

It winters in the southern United States and northern Mexico.  During migration, sandhill cranes congregate in large numbers at staging areas of mid-latitude states. 

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.

This species was nearly decimated in the east by breeding habitat loss and overhunting 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 are an estimated minimum 89,000 Sandhill 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:  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 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 wingtips. 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). An 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.

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 flock 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 Refuge in 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.