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Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane Winter Habitats

BirdReturns has been working with farmers and landowners since its inception in 2014 to provide habitat for migratory shorebirds, cranes, waterfowl, and other waterbirds. This year, The Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (MBCP), with funding and support from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, will be using the BirdReturns Program to provide needed wintering habitat in the Sacramento Valley and Delta for the Greater Sandhill Crane, a California threatened subspecies. While cranes are the primary focus of this program, the habitat conditions created will also benefit many species of waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) and other waterbirds, including shorebirds and waders, and raptors.

Sandhill Crane Winter Program 2023-2024

The objective of this BirdReturns program is to incentivize farmers to create new Sandhill Crane roosting and foraging sites to increase the resilience of this iconic species and well as other waterbirds in the Central Valley. Sandhill Cranes and other species. To be enrolled in the program, individual growers need to provide both habitat types, which in total amount to at least 200 acres.

Roosting sites provide locations for cranes to congregate and remain safe from predators overnight. Fields that provide this habitat must be flooded from 3-9 inches in depth and maintained for at least eight weeks between November 6, 2023 and March 15, 2024.

Foraging sites provide locations for cranes to feed near their night roosts. These sites must be harvested rice, corn, or cereal grain fields (e.g., barley, wheat, oats, etc.) that are left unflooded to maximize the amount of food available to the birds.

To apply to the BirdReturns Winter Program, farmers must submit a bid consisting of the acreage totals and desired dollar amounts per acre needed to deliver roosting habitat and foraging habitat.  Separate bid prices per acre must be included for roosting vs. foraging habitat. Further program details are provided below.

Program Details


  • Sacramento Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the primary wintering area of the Greater Sandhill Crane subspecies and an area of high importance to many other waterbird species.


  • Appropriate roosting and foraging habitats must be maintained for a period of at least 8 weeks between November 6, 2023 and March 15, 2024.
  • Grower to select enrollment window that works best for them.

Appropriate field types and sizes

Participants must provide both roost habitat (50 acre minimum) and forage habitat (150 acre minimum) for a total of at least 200 acres. Required conditions for each of the habitat types are detailed below.

Roosting habitat

  • Post-harvest or fallow agricultural fields that are at least 50 acres. Fields must have reliable access to water for flooding maintenance.
  • Fields must have a minimum width of 100 m without continuous bands of large trees along the edge.

Foraging Habitat

  • Harvested small grain fields totaling at least 150 acres. These fields must be in within ½ mile of the roost site.

Field Management

Roosting Habitat

  • Fields must be cleared of vegetation, with no trees or vines and minimal standing stubble or other vegetation. Incorporation of crop residue or weeds may be needed.
  • Fields must be fully flooded by the program start date and maintained to shallow depths of 3-9” for at least 8 weeks between November 6, 2023 and March 15, 2024, followed by a two-week gradual drawdown period.
  • In sloping fields, the shallow end may be less than 3”, and the deeper end greater than 9”, with flood management done to maximize the desired depth range of 3-9” across the field. Cross field berms can help provide desired depths in sloping fields.

Foraging Habitat

  • Corn: Harvested and chopped, mulched, or baled with no tillage/disking before the enrollment end date. Use of a roller is permitted. These fields may not be intentionally flooded.
  • Rice: Conventional harvest. Stripper header harvest is not allowed. No tillage/disking before the enrollment end date. Stubble may be left standing, chopped, or baled. Use of a roller is permitted.  These fields may not be intentionally flooded until the 6th week.
  • Cereal Grains: Harvested and chopped, mulched, or baled with no tillage/disking before the enrollment end date. Use of a roller is permitted. These fields may not be intentionally flooded until the 6th week.
  • Beginning during the sixth (6th) week of enrollment, fields may begin a slow flood up, but must remain at a depth of 2 inches or less throughout the remainder of the enrollment period.

Ineligible Fields

  • Fields enrolled in any annual incentive program (e.g., NRCS EQIP, CWRHIP) that provides payment to conduct flooding during the exact same time window. Enrollments may be staggered back-to-back in time.
  • Fields located within five miles of major airports, including Travis AFB, Beale AFB, and Sacramento International.
  • Fields where hunting occurs. No hunting on enrolled roost fields or fields directly adjoining. Hunting in the area surrounding is permissible (including on foraging fields), but ideally it will be low intensity (for example, Wednesdays and Saturdays dawn until noon).
  • Roost fields with trees along their borders are excluded. Foraging fields may have some clumps of trees on their edges, but fewer trees are preferable.

Additional Planning Considerations

  • Longer duration and later season enrollments are preferred.
  • Sites with larger roosts and more surrounding foraging area are preferred.
  • Larger hunting exclusion areas are preferred.

Bid Ranking and Scoring Processes

All bids will be ranked and scored by representatives from the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The selection committee will assess bids according to standardized methods and use a model selection process to predict the habitat value of each bid. Sites will be given a score based on position in the landscape relative to historical roost sites, land cover, surface water availability, local climate, and timing. Applicants that can maintain habitat conditions longer, have larger acreages, and offer competitive pricing will rank higher. Feel free to contact us if you’d like additional information on scoring criteria.

Selection Timelines

  • Enrollments will be open from September 18 to October 16, 2023
  • Analysis and scoring will be conducted by October 27, 2023
  • Notices of Awards and Rejections will be done by November 1, 2023
  • Habitat Periods begin November 6, 2023

Program Budget

A total of $440,000 is available for habitat between Nov. 6, 2023 and March 15, 2024. All bids that are more than 1.5 times the bidding average will be disqualified. Additionally, we reserve the right to reject any bids that are determined to be unreasonably priced, even if they are within 1.5 times the average of all bids.

Why A Special Focus On Sandhill Cranes?

Worldwide, cranes are one of the most imperiled groups of birds. In recent years, Sandhill Crane populations in California have declined due to the loss of flooded habitats which they depend upon for roosting, and reductions in small grain agriculture which provides their main food source. The conversion of wildlife-friendly seasonal field crops like corn and rice to more permanent crops such as orchards and vines has directly eliminated large areas of habitat for this iconic Central Valley species.

Fortunately, however, Sandhill Cranes respond well to the implementation of simple management actions that are easy to implement for many farmers. All that is needed is the creation of flooded areas for roosting flocks, and nearby foraging habitats in suitable harvested agricultural fields. Our program is designed to achieve this by providing compensation to farmers who are interested and willing to manage their fields in this way.

Compounding this problem, the high site fidelity exhibited by cranes means that if a historic roost is transformed to non-suitable habitat, they may struggle to find a new, suitable roost. By increasing the number of potential roost sites, we can ensure these iconic birds have the resources they need to thrive. Importantly these conditions will also benefit a broad suite of other wetland associated species including waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans), shorebirds, waders, and raptors. Maintaining a mosaic of wetlands and well-managed wildlife-friendly croplands will allow this region to continue to support Sandhill Cranes while simultaneously benefiting other wildlife and the regional economy.