Decoying Sandhill Cranes

by Brad Fenson

Sandhill cranes are a regular sight over harvested grain fields, and with a few decoys it doesn’t take much to encourage them to fly by for a look. Often landing in the same fields as other waterfowl, sandhill cranes find security and feeding opportunities with ducks and geese already on the ground.

Choosing decoys

Several manufacturers make crane decoys. Creating silhouette decoys from coroplast (corrugated plastic) or thin plywood is an excellent project for the do-it-yourself hunter. Setting the tall, grey decoys in locations where birds have been spotted feeding is most effective. The decoys work as a natural drawing card, bringing these social birds in close to well-concealed hunters.

It’s feasible to decoy cranes over Canada goose spreads, but getting serious about crane hunting requires a specific set up. Hunters can be successful with as few as six decoys, and spreads of 12 to 24 decoys are incredibly effective.

Decoy placement

Place decoys where cranes search for food—field edges where stubble meets grass, wetland edges, or even areas adjacent to bales or swaths. Sandhills seek insects, rodents, and amphibians as much as they do grain or seeds. Most important? Pay attention to where birds are feeding when you spot them. A good feeding location for the long-legged birds is visited regularly.

Spread decoys out, as the birds are territorial when feeding with three to four metres between themselves on the ground. If using silhouettes, set them perpendicular to the wind. Full-size decoys should face into the wind. Extend the decoys across the shooters, and remember the birds will land into the wind.

Ready to shoot

Sandhills come in slow and steady. Once committed, they lower their legs and try to land. With feet down and wings stopping the birds’ forward motion, it’s time to shoot! Don’t be surprised if the flock circles once before committing to joining the decoys.

Use a call if you can, as sandhill cranes are incredibly vocal. There are several sandhill crane calls available on the market, but some hunters have mastered crane calling with a Canada goose call. The birds can also be imitated with a voice call.

Long legs and necks make cranes deceptive, so it’s easy to misjudge range. Focus on the head and not the body or legs. A proper shotgun lead from the tip of the beak is best for delivering a shot pattern to the head and neck.

If birds are knocked down, collect them right away. Cranes can cover lots of ground quickly, and birds left to retrieve later are often long gone. An active crane field can be hunted several times before the birds look for a new feeding location.