Alaska Science Center

Lesser Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis canadensis

High-Priority Species List

A large proportion of the mid-continent population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes migrates through Alaska in the spring on the way to their breeding grounds in eastern Chukotka, and returns in autumn.
The Lesser Sandhill Crane in Alaska consists of two different populations, the Midcontinent Population and Pacific Flyway Population, based on segregation during the breeding, migration and wintering periods (Tacha et al. 1994). Recent results from satellite tracking studies have confirmed earlier research, that indicates that the only Alaskan population of Sandhill Crane that migrates to Asia is the mid-continent population of Lesser Sandhill Crane (G. Krapu, unpubl. data), which winters primarily in Texas, and migrates through Nebraska and the Canadian Prairies and nests from north central Canada, throughout northern and western Alaska, into eastern Siberia (Portenko 1981, Tacha et al. 1992, Tacha et al. 1994). As much as 25% of the mid-continent population (which numbers up to 500,000 birds) may migrate through Alaska each spring and breed in Asia (8 of 31 PTT-marked birds over 3 years; G. Krapu, unpubl. data). The probability of Lesser Sandhill Cranes being exposed to Asian H5N1 is greater than for many other species of birds not only because of their great abundance in Asia, but also because of their proclivity to mix with other species cranes (Johnsgard 1983) which likely migrate through areas infected with Asian H5N1, and the diversity of natural and agricultural habitats they use for foraging and roosting (McIvor and Conover 1991), making them more likely than many migratory species to come into contact with Asian H5N1 carrying domestic poultry.
No. of samples: Total of 400 desirable given the large number of birds likely to be passing through Alaska, but obtaining samples will likely be very difficult.
Sampling locations: Sampling will be conducted primarily on the Seward Peninsula, and the northern portion of Norton Sound, and on St. Lawrence Island, to optimize the chances of encountering birds returning from Chukotka. Potential sites include: Kuzitrin River Flats west of Imuruk Basin; Sinuk River and Safety Lagoon near Nome, and coastal flats near Moses Point, Koyuk River, and Shaktoolik River Flats in Norton Bay. St. Lawrence Island is also a primary site if sufficient sampling is feasible (Kawerak Corp. estimated that Gambel and Savoonga took > 250 cranes in 2002). Secondary locations will include Creamers Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge (state) in Fairbanks, and public hunting areas in the Tanana Valley near Delta Junction.
Sampling timeframe: Birds returning from Asia in August and early September will be targeted. Tanana Valley migration and hunting occurs throughout September.
Sample demographics: Given the likely difficulty in obtaining samples, birds of all ages and sex will be targeted.
Methods of capture: Most samples will be obtained from subsistence hunters (Aug-Sept), sport hunters (1-30 Sept), or through scientific collection. A few samples may be obtained from birds rocket-netted during late summer and early autumn at Creamers Field in Fairbanks.
Other targeted species: Several other avian species returning to Alaska from eastern Siberia could possibly be sampled on St. Lawrence Island and the Seward Peninsula, including many on the list of 26 high priority species noted in the National Plan.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Migratory Bird Management
Contact: Julian Fischer

Selawik NWR
Contact: Tina Moran

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Waterfowl Program
Contact: Tom Rothe

Fairbanks Regional Office (Creamers Field Waterfowl Refuge)
Contact: Jason Caikowski

Delta Junction Area Office
Contact: Steve DuBois

Kawerak Inc. (Seward Peninsula, Nome area, St. Lawrence Island)
Contact: Andrew Ahmasik
Johnsgard, P. 1983. Cranes of the World. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, USA.

McIvor, D. E., and M. R. Conover. 1991. Sandhill Crane habitat use in northwestern Utah and southwestern Wyoming. Pp. 81-84 In Proceedings of the sixth North American Crane Workshop,

Regina, Saskatchewan. Guynes Printing Co., Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Portenko, L. A. 1981. Birds of the Chukchi Peninsula and Wrangel Island. Nauka Publishers, Leningrad. Translated from Russian. Published for the Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbit, and P. A. Vohs. 1992. Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 31 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologist's Union.

Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbitt, and P. A. Vohs. 1994. Sandhill Crane. Pp. 77-94 In Migratory Shore and Upland Game Bird Management in North America. Allen Press, Lawrence, Kansas.

Distribution map of Lesser Sandhill Crane

Ranking Score: 11.5

Asian H5N1 ranking criteria for Lesser Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis canadensis.

Total of partial
contact with Asia1
Contact with
known "hot spot"2
Habitat used in
Pop. in Alaska4
Can samples be
Unknown numbers of mid-continent population breed in Siberia
No known use of AI-infected areas
Breeds in wet or moist tundra meadows, near wetlands, or on barrier islands; often feeds in agricultural areas where available
Alaska population believed to be in the low tens of thousands
Could be difficult to obtain target numbers
Image of Lesser Sandhill Crane, photo by C. Ely