Sandhill cranes flock to Southeastern Arizona

A group of Sandhill Cranes take flight over the wetlands
A group of Sandhill Cranes take flight over wetlands, picture courtesy of Arizona Fish and Game Department.

In early October, when temperatures drop in the north, thousands of Sandhill Cranes flood to the warmer climate of Southeastern Arizona.

Some of the cranes are domestic, traveling from Montana and Alaska; others are more worldly, coming from as far as Eastern Canada and Siberia.

“They seek large bodies of standing water near agricultural fields,” said Jim Garrett, the wildlife area and property manager of Whitewater Draw. “They prefer corn, that’s a big draw for them.”

The majority of the cranes head to Whitewater Draw located about 60 miles south of Willcox, and the rest scatter around the Cochise Lake area just west of the Chiricahuas. The wetlands and grasslands in these areas offer the cranes shallow roosting waters safe from predators and easily accessible food sources in the spreads of farmland.

Mostly light gray in color, with elegant thin necks and red heads, the cranes stand three to four feet tall and form groups by the thousands. While driving through Willcox or Whitewater draw, it is near impossible to miss them bobbling about the wetlands and grasslands.

The cranes can migrate down as early as late September and will head back north beginning in late February. The peak of crane season is January through the beginning of February.  On Jan. 6, the official bird count was recorded. By that day, all of the wintering cranes have settled into their Arizona roosting areas and the most accurate number can be determined. This year’s count was 20,832.

“At twilight when the cranes are leaving their roosts, they can be spotted easier in the sky as they lift off,” said George Hayes, the manager of Cluff Ranch Wildlife area. “They string out into formations and our counters estimate the numbers in the groupings.”

According to Hayes, there is no way to gather a precise count. The counters, who are given a certain roosting area to watch, simply estimate the number of birds as they leave their roosts in different groups.

The bird counts are now conducted in five places: the Willcox Playa area, Crane Lake, Whitewater Draw, Safford Valley and Bonita.

The first official bird count in 1978 totaled 4,264 birds. The numbers have grown considerably since.

“I’ve worked here for 12 years now and in 2010 I was able to see the record year of over 40,000 birds,” said Teresa Palmer, the Willcox Visitor Center coordinator. “They were everywhere.”

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s official totals, the bird count climbed to 24,190 in 1996 and in the following years has remained mostly within the range of 20,000 to 30,000 birds.

Graph showing Sandhill Crane counts from 1978 to present. Numbers provided by the Arizona Game and Fish Department
Graph showing Sandhill Crane counts from 1978 to present. Numbers provided by Jim Garrett

This year’s number was considerably lower compared to recent counts that stretched into the upper 20,000’s. According to Garrett, there is no real known reason for the fluctuation.

“The number this year wasn’t really unusual,” Garrett said. “It’s more that the year we counted over 40,000 cranes was the very abnormal year.”

Regardless of the count, the thousands of cranes bring thousands of eager bird watchers every year.

Wings Over Willcox, the annual birding and nature festival put on by the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, is held mid January when opportunity for viewing the large groups of winter migrants is at its highest. They’re skittish around people, so for a close up, binoculars are required.

“Our festival generates around 600 people every year,” says Alan Baker, the executive director of Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. Other tourists will trickle in throughout the season and travel to the crane’s roosting sites on their own.

The cranes, though they may be a favorite tourist spectacle, can be an annoyance for some of the local farmers.

The birds prefer cornfields, but sometimes forage wheat, barley, oats and maize. However, by the time the cranes arrive, most all crops have been harvested so there is very minimal damage if any.

“Farmers have pretty much just learned to deal with it,” Garrett said.

Kianna Gardner is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at 

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