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Sandhill Cranes

Once a familiar site to the Cherokee who settled the area north of Chattanooga, the eastern sandhill crane all but disappeared from the Tennessee sky. Loss of habitat and unregulated hunting pushed these interesting animals to the brink of extinction. Once numbering fewer than 100, today more than 75 thousand eastern sandhills can be found. It’s an amazing success story written by the hard work of people and the resiliency of the cranes, which are once again a common sight in the Tennessee sky. Wild Side Guide Ken Tucker takes us to the Hiwasse Refuge near Dayton to get an up close look at these birds and find out why some people are concerned about their future.

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. These birds migrate to wintering areas in the southern US and Mexico. The sandhill cranes migrating or wintering in Tennessee make up a large proportion of the Eastern population, which is considered the world’s second largest sandhill crane population, migrating through and wintering in portions of Tennessee, most noticeably around the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.

The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge covers 6,000 acres at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers. Around 2,500 acres of the refuge is land, with around 750 acres being used to grow corn, wheat, soybeans, milo, varieties of millet, and buckwheat to provide food for waterfowl. Managed by the TWRA, Hiwassee has the largest winter flock of sandhill cranes in the southeast United States outside of Florida. There is an observation platform there for bird watching that is open year-round. The best time to view sandhill cranes and an occasional endangered whooping crane is from November through February, with the peak numbers of cranes occurring in January. There is also an annual Sandhill Crane Festival at the refuge every year around the middle of January, bringing thousands of people out to celebrate these amazing birds. Along with the opportunity to view the birds during the festival, special programs are held each day at the Birchwood Community Center.

If you are interested in learning more about birdwatching, visit the Tennessee Ornithological Society’s website at

From show 2712