BIRCHWOOD, Tenn. (WATE) — A celebration of some 20,000 Sandhill Cranes is happening in January in Meigs County that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is hosting for bird enthusiasts and families. The majestic birds are appearing at the edge of East Tennessee for a stopover during their winter migration.

The 32nd annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival is happening Jan. 14-15, 2023 at the Hiwassee Refuge. The free event runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. both days with free shuttle transportation for attendees. TWRA says it’s an opportunity to focus the attention on the rich heritage of the state plus the Native American history in the area.

This family-friendly festival provides a chance to experience the call, which can be heard for over a mile, the dance between mates, the wingspan which stretches to six to seven feet, and the view of this four-foot-tall bird, along with entertainment, vendors, and children’s activities,” TWRA states on its website of the event.

What is a Sandhill Crane?

Tennessee Sandhill Cranes. (Photo: TWRA)

The Sandhill Crane is a species of bird that is the most numerous and wide-ranging of all worldwide crane species, according to TWRA, with a population that exceeds 1 million. The bird is described by biologists as standing 4-5 feet tall, long-necked and long-legged, with an overall gray color with a red head and bright white cheeks. Breeding ranges for the six distinct migratory populations extend across North America.

Sandhill cranes only started to winter in Tennessee in the 1990s, according to TWRA, with the call of the Sandhill Crane carrying more than a mile.

“The call is described as a trumpeting, bugling, or resonating, wooden rattle, which can carry long distances,” TWRA states on its site. “Mated pairs of cranes engage in ‘unison calling,’ where the cranes stand close together, calling in a synchronized and complex duet. The call of young birds can be easily distinguished and resembles a musical purr.”

TWRA says the sandhill cranes that migrate or winter in Tennessee make up a large proportion of the Eastern Population, which migrates through and winters in portions of Tennessee and is considered the world’s second-largest sandhill crane population. Tennessee has wintered an average of more than 29,000 cranes over the last five years. 

Where can I see Tennessee Sandhill Cranes?

There are two areas that serve as primary migration and wintering sites in Tennessee: Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Megis County, where thousands can be seen at one time; and Hop-in Refuge in Obion County and surrounding lands near the Reelfoot Lake in West Tennessee which also attract several thousand sandhill cranes. TWRA also says smaller populations of sandhill cranes are scattered across Tennessee.

Sandhill Crane Festival

Visitors to the 32nd annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival can ride the free shuttles from the Birchwood Community Center to the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park and Hiwassee Refuge. Guests can also enjoy free, live music, vendors and educators.

Other Information, via TWRA:

  • Parking is available at the Birchwood Community Center only. Shuttles will be provided to the Hiwassee Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial Park on both days from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Sandhill Crane viewing, educational information, spotting scopes for up-close viewing will be available on both days at the Hiwassee Refuge
  • Native American artifacts, interpreters, bird viewing will be available on both days at Cherokee Removal Memorial
  • Children’s craft room will be available on both days at the Birchwood School
  • Quilt Raffle tickets will be available throughout the weekend. Drawing on Sunday (winner need not be present)

Event sponsors: TWRA, Birchwood Area Society Improvement Council, Cherokee Removal Memorial Park.

Event partners: Tennessee Valley Authority, Tennessee Wildlife Foundation, Hamilton County, Southeast TN Tourism Association, American Eagle Foundation, Meigs County Tourism, Rhea County Tourism.

More information can be found here.