Best time to travel to Minnesota

Sandhill Crane Migration

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

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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.