Sandhill Cranes: The Novelty Game Bird

By James Elledge

January 8, 2020 - Sandhill cranes have a mysterious aura. Waterfowlers across the country seem to be equally intrigued and unaware about the best ways to hunt them.  Often called the “ribeye of the sky,” these prehistoric looking game birds are, indeed, great table fare. While this is well documented, there isn’t much public information on the history of these formidable and fascinating birds. So, let’s take a deeper dive to better understand the species and the hunting opportunities that exist. Warning: stoke level may rise on this flight.

"Often called the “ribeye of the sky,” these prehistoric looking game birds are, indeed, great table fare."

Today, there are over 600,000 sandhill cranes in North America. But that number hasn’t always been as strong.  In fact, it wasn’t until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that the sandhill crane population had an opportunity to recover.  After a much-needed rest from hunting, the populations became stable enough.  In 1961, the state of New Mexico re-opened a sandhill crane hunting season, and several states followed suit.  Just 6 months ago, Alabama re-established legal hunting of sandhill cranes after 100 years of drought to join 15 other states that allow it.

The best crane hunting in the country can be found in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, Tennessee and Kentucky. There are now several established outfitters in these states that focus on harvesting these delicious-breasted birds. The guides at these outfits will tell you firsthand that hunting these birds is, in a lot of respects, similar to hunting ducks and geese.  Sandhills, too, have keen eyesight and will flare if the landing zone looks out of the ordinary.  So hunters must be cognizant to brush blinds with natural vegetation.  They tend to roost in harvested agricultural fields, but hunters shouldn’t plan on picking just any field to setup a blind. Sandhill cranes require a good bit of scouting in order to find the roost and preferred feeding areas.  

 Once the birds have been located and the blind has been setup with care, the next step for hunting sandhill cranes is to set out realistic decoys.  Many outfitters will use actual taxidermied birds to draw in flocks of living birds. What better way to look realistic? Once the spread is set, it’s time to get 100% concealed and geared up to execute the job.  The limit is up to 3 birds, depending on the state, so hunters will want to make their shots count. No. 2 steel or BBs are the optimal loads for knocking down these big birds. The best place to hit a sandhill is in the head or the neck, which is very long and makes for a sizable target.  Pellets to the body or wings may not finish the job, and a wounded bird can get nasty.  These mean birds will stand upright and duel with a dog in the field, aiming to poke out the dog’s eyes with their long and sharp beaks. Many outfitters will not run their dogs unless they are wearing dog goggles - or will only allow them to pick up completely dead birds. On a sandhill crane hunt in the peanut fields of west Texas a couple years ago, the guide we hunted with brought a baseball bat as a finisher.

Waterfowlers tend to love different experiences in the field, so hopefully this expose‘ of the sandhill crane will spur you to get out there and chase these distinct birds.  Make sure to bring your best shells, quality hunting gear and A-game shooting. Your favorite marinade?  Optional.

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