Best time to travel to Minnesota

Sandhill Crane Migration in Minnesota

Fall is the best time to observe one of the oldest bird species on the planet

Best time: early September–mid-November

Sandhill Crane Migration
Sandhill Crane Migration
A sandhill crane at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill cranes or Antigone canadensis used to be quite common birds in western Minnesota until their numbers were drastically reduced in the 19th century due to loss of habitat and overhunting. By the beginning of the 20th century, no more than 25 pairs of Minnesota sandhill cranes remained. Nowadays, sandhill cranes, which have been living in North America for about 10 million years, are back at multiple nesting sites throughout the state.

Minnesota also lies on the major flyway for birds nesting in Canada and Alaska. So during fall migration season, resident cranes that belong to the eastern population are joined by migrating sandhill cranes from mid-continent population, and, as a result, over 10,000 sandhill cranes congregate at several bird areas scattered between Minnesota's forest and prairie regions. The migration lasts from early September through mid-November. In late March and early April, cranes return to breed in Minnesota from their wintering sites in Florida and on the Gulf of Mexico.

The primary destination to observe sandhill cranes in Minnesota is Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts about 40 pairs of sandhill cranes for their breeding season as well as thousands more in September and October. The 30,700 ac (12,423 ha) refuge offers crane tours during migration season beginning at sunrise. Nothing can be compared to the sight of thousands of cranes taking off to look for food with the first rays of sunshine. Cranes have also been spotted at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake. Further north from the Twin Cities, you can check out Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Minnesota that features 61,500 ac (24,888 ha) of bogs and sedge meadows. Sandhill cranes are spotted all over the glacial lake country of northwestern Minnesota every fall.

Practical info

When is the best time to observe sandhill cranes in Minnesota?

The fall migration season from early September to mid-November is prime for observing sandhill cranes in Minnesota. Minnesota's forest and prairie regions house over 10,000 cranes that migrate mid-continent during this season, joining the eastern population's resident cranes at different bird areas. Show more

Where are the best places to observe sandhill cranes in Minnesota?

Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake are the best places to observe sandhill cranes. Additionally, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in Northwestern Minnesota, and the glacial lake region in northwestern Minnesota, are perfect spots for sighting these birds every fall. Show more

What caused the decline in sandhill cranes in Minnesota in the 19th century?

Habitat loss and overhunting were the primary reasons for sandhill cranes decline in Minnesota during the 19th century. When European settlers arrived in Minnesota, they drained or damaged many wetlands that serve as breeding sites for sandhill cranes. Consequently, indiscriminate hunting, especially during fall migration, caused a considerable reduction in the crane population. Show more

How many sandhill cranes congregate in Minnesota during fall migration?

In Minnesota, sandhill cranes' population is over 10,000 during fall migration season between early September and mid-November. During this season, cranes migrate from mid-continent to join the eastern population's resident cranes in around several bird areas in Minnesota's forest and prairie regions. The migration culminates in mid-November. Show more

Where do sandhill cranes go during the winter months?

During winter, sandhill cranes migrate to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico from Minnesota's forest and prairie regions for winter months. Some cranes also relocate to southern parts of the United States. These birds return to Minnesota in late March and early April from their wintering sites. Show more

External Resources

Ask a question
Last updated: by Olga Valchyshen