'They are dinosaurs': Tahoe sees return of giant birds

For generations, hundreds of huge white birds flew over Sierra Nevada lakes and mountains in spring and summer.   

Their complex courtship rituals on land included leaping, twirling, and flapping their gorgeous black-tipped wings to find a permanent spouse. Sandhill cranes were previously easy to recognize near Lake Tahoe from afar due to their 7-foot wingspan and 5-foot height.  

Overhunting and habitat loss reduced the state's population to three or four breeding pairs by 1944, from hundreds of thousands. California declared the birds “fully protected” in 1970.   

Truckee and locations north of Lake Tahoe near Sierraville and Quincy have witnessed them in recent years. “But in the Tahoe Basin, it’s a slightly more recent of a recolonization  

Tahoe Institute for Natural Science executive director Will Richardson. They face greater strain from hikers, recreational use, and trail use.   

After more than 50 years of protection, the birds are returning to the Tahoe Basin, and environmentalists hope additional couples will breed in 2024.   

They enjoyed Tahoe's marshy conditions last summer, but more people spending time in the environment poses a hazard.  

Richardson explains, “When they pick their nesting spots, that's pretty early in the spring, and not peak recreation season in Tahoe.” “So they don't know how busy some spots will get. That puts them at a disadvantage.”   

Richardson notes that the time needed to give children a fighting chance also limits their growth. A breeding couple usually produces one or two chicks, which incubate for 30 days and then 70 days before they can live.   

“They must survive migration, winter, and all kinds of hazards,” he says. “If a predator comes and the colts can't fly, the parents can only do so much.”  

Richardson says nesting partners need space to succeed. TINS has researched nest failures caused by recreationalists ignoring signs and letting dogs near nesting locations.  

As the tallest bird in Tahoe, the birds are easy to spot if you approach too close to their habitat.