Animals -> Birds -> Other Birds -> Cranes and Rails

Cranes and Rails

Cranes and Rails General

Cranes and Rails General

Because cranes and rails are not abundant and widespread birds, only a few cultures made use of them for their meat and feathers.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes were commonly hunted by Northwest cultures including the Shuswap, Thompson (N'laka'pamux), Tlingit, Chandalar Kutchin (Gwich’in) and Red Earth Cree [1-10]. The bird was sought for its meat, eggs and feathers. The eggs of sandhill cranes were relished by cultures of Northern Canada [10].

Inuit at Eskimo Point (known today as Arviat) hunted cranes in summer when they were numerous [11]. In the far north, Sandhill Cranes were available in July and August, the months when they were known to breed and thus easy to find [12]; Sandhill Cranes were reported to have been plentiful for the Katzie in March [13]. The Hare (Sahtu), Nuvorugmiut (Inuvialuit), Ontario First Nations are also reported to have consumed Sandhill Cranes [14-17].

The Kalispel reportedly shot cranes with bows and arrows [4]. The Huron shot cranes with bows and arrows and trapped them with snares [18].

The Kutenai (Kootenai) and Kaska very much enjoyed crane flesh [19]; however, this majestic bird was difficult to catch, and as such, was an irregular treat [20]. Excellent hunting skills were required and hunters approached a Sandhill Crane through close, careful stalking [21].

Other cultures were not as fond of crane. One author recorded Alaskan Kutchin thoughts on the Sandhill Crane: “some say it tastes good, others say it tastes bad; some claim that cranes are too skinny to be good eating, whereas others say that they look skinny but there is fat all through their flesh” [21]. Cranes were seldom eaten by Iroquois and Micmac (Mi'kmaq) [22, 23]. Certain peoples even prohibited the use of crane for food, including some Northern Athapaskan cultures and the Plains Cree [9, 24].

Cranes were usually cooked by fire-roasting or boiling, a method used by many including the Southern Okanagan [25]. Among the Kalispel, the Sandhill Crane, being a large bird, was usually saved for adults, while smaller birds were given to children [4].

The crane was valued not only for its meat, but also for its feathers. The Lillooet made use of flesh, feathers and quills [26]. Similarly, the Kalispel used the feathers of the Sandhill Crane for veining arrows [4]. Some Northwest Coast cultures used crane feathers to stuff beds and pillows; the feathers were also used to adorn the hair during festivals [2]. The Sandhill Crane was often featured on wooden masks that were worn in ceremonies [10]. 

American Coot

The American Coot is reported to have been eaten by the Red Earth Cree [5]. Among the Katzie, coots were so numerous at times that hunters killed them easily with sticks; it is believed that the coot only learned to fly away once firearms were introduced [27]. The Shoshone would drive American Coots from the water towards hunters waiting on land where the birds were killed with sticks or bare hands (by wringing the necks). To lure the American Coot, decoys were made by stretching bird skin over frames of tule reed [28]. Kalispel are reported to have eaten American Coot eggs in abundance, either cooked or raw [4].


1.         Matthew M: Foods of The Shuswap People. Kamloops, B.C.: Secwepemc Cultural Education Society; 1986.

2.         Eells M: The Indians of Puget Sound: The Notebooks of Myron Eells. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1985.

3.         Teit JA: The Shuswap, vol. Series: American Museum of Natural Histroy ( The Jesup North Pacific Expedition). New York: AMS PRESS INC.; 1975.

4.         Walker Jr. DE (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 12: Plateau. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1998.

5.         Meyer D: Appendix I: Plants, Animals and Climate; Appendix IV: Subsistence-Settlement Patterns. In: The Red Earth Crees, 1860-1960. Volume 1st edition, edn.: National Musem of Man Mercury Series; 1985: 175-185-200-223.

6.         Oberg K: The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press; 1973.

7.         Teit JA (ed.): Part IV The Thompson Indians. New York; 1900.

8.         Teit JA (ed.): Part VII The Shuswap. New York; 1900.

9.         McKennan RA: Getting a Living. In: The Chandalar Kutchin. edn. New York: Arctic Intitue of North America, Technical Paper No. 17; 1965.

10.       Vaughan R: Birds and Arctic peoples. In: In Search of Arctic Birds. edn. London: T & A D Poyser; 1992: 20-48.

11.       Vanstone JW, Oswalt W: The Caribou Eskimos of Eskimo Point. Ottawa: Northern Co-ordination and Research Centre, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources; 1959.

12.       Russel F: Explorations in the Far North. In: Explorations in the Far North. edn. Iowa: University of Iowa; 1898.

13.       Suttles W, Jenness D: Katzie Ethnographic Notes / The Faith of a Coast Salish Indian. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum; 1955.

14.       Damas D (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5: Arctic. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1984.

15.       Hara HS: The Hare Indians and Their World. In. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada; 1980: 95-147.

16.       Rogers ES: Aboriginal Ontario: historical perspectives on the First Nations. Toronto: Dundurn Press; 1994.

17.       Morrison DA: The Kugaluk Site and the Nuvorugmiut: The Archaeology and History of a Nineteenth-Century Mackenzie Inuit Society. Hull, Quebec: National Musems of Canada; 1988.

18.       Tooker E: An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649, vol. originally published as Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 190. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press; 1991.

19.       Honigmann JJ: The Kaska Indians: An Ethnographic Reconstruction. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1954.

20.       Turney-High HH: Ethnography of the Kutenai. Menasha, Wisconsin: American Anthropological Association; 1941.

21.       Nelson RK: Hunters of the Northern Forest: Designs for Survival among the Alaskan Kutchin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 1973.

22.       Waugh FW. In: Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation. edn. Ottawa: Department of Mines. Government Printing Bureau; 1973.

23.       Stoddard NB: Micmac Foods, vol. re-printed from the Journal of Education February 1966. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Halifax Natural Science Museum; 1970.

24.       Mandelbaum DG: The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study, vol. 1st edition. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center; 1979.

25.       Post RH: The Subsistence Quest. In: The Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagan of Washington. edn. Edited by Spier L. Menasha, Wisconsin, U. S. A.: George Banta Publishing Company Agent; 1938: 11-33.

26.       Teit JA: Part V The Lillooet Indians, vol. II. New York; 1906.

27.       Suttles W: Katzie Ethnographic Notes. In: Katzie Ethnographic Notes. edn. Edited by Duff W. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum; 1955.

28.       Olsen SL: Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview. In: Stars Above, Earth Below American Indians and Nature. edn. Edited by Bol MC. Dublin: Roberts Rinehart Publishers; 1998: 95-118.

Cranes and Rails General

Cranes and Rails General

Cranes and rails are two closely related bird families. Cranes are large, long-legged, and long–necked birds, while rails and coots are smaller fowl-like birds [1]. In North America, cranes and rails include the Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) and the American Coot (Fulica americana).

Sandhill Crane

The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is the most common North American crane and breed in Alaska and throughout Canada, westward from the Great Lakes, but also in isolated pockets around the American Rocky Mountains and in Florida. Most migrate to overwinter south of the breeding range, but some populations are year-round resident, including Florida populations [2].

Sandhill Cranes of both sexes have an overall grayish brown body plumage, a gray neck, white cheeks and chin, and unfeathered reddish forehead and crown. Males are generally larger than females, being over 1 m tall and weighing close to 4 kg with a wingspan over 2 m. They have a long, straight black bill and long, falling down tail feathers. Unlike herons, cranes fly with their neck extended. They are most often found in freshwater marshes and meadows and feed both on land and in water on a variety of plant and animal foods. They form long-lasting monogamous couples and are known for gracious dancing courtship displays. Sandhill Cranes first breed after their second year and live on average for around seven years [2].

American Coot

The American Coot (Fulica americana) is part of a fowl-like family of birds related to the crane family. They are a dark, duck-sized bird, weighing between 430 and 850 g, and are closely associated with open water. Unlike ducks and more like chickens, they do not have webbed feet and rock their head when they walk or swim. American Coots are widespread in North America south of the southern Canadian Prairies [3].


1.         Harrison CJO: Bird families of the world. Oxford, England: Elsevier-Phaidon; 1978.

2.         Tacha TC, Nesbitt SA, ohs PA: Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1992.

3.         Brisbin J, Lehr I, Mowbray TB: American Coot (Fulica americana). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Conrell Lab of Ornithology; 2002.


Distribution maps provided below, unless otherwise stated, were obtained from Birds of North America Online, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and all pictures provided below were obtained from Encyclopedia of Life
Sandhill Crane
Supplier: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Ken Thomas
American Coot
© Michael Rosenberg
Supplier: Flickr: EOL Images
Photographer: Michael Rosenberg