Sandhill Cranes are my husband’s favorite birds. He loves their large size, their wild wondrous call and their elegant mating dance. With their long legs and necks, these gray birds with crimson-capped heads stand up to 4 feet tall, and have a large wingspan ranging from 5.5 – 7.5 feet. Males are slightly larger than females, but otherwise look identical.
I often hear their loud, trumpeting call before I spot these prehistoric creatures, because their call from the ground or the air can be heard 2.5 miles away. The structure of Sandhill Cranes’ elongated windpipes enables them to produce their distinctive bugling sound. I especially love the synchronized duets that occur when mated cranes stand close together. During this “unison calling”, the female makes two calls for every one from the male. The cranes’ courtship dance is delightful. They stretch their wings, bow and leap gracefully into the air, chasing one another energetically.
Sandhill Cranes mate for life and share parenting duties. Both bring plant materials to construct a nest, usually in a marsh, bog or shallow pond. The female lays 1-3 eggs, and both male and female cranes incubate the eggs for about 30 days, taking turns sitting on the nest. Both parents protect the young once the chicks hatch.
Foxes, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats and alligators hunt the chicks, as well as hawks, eagles and great horned owls. Young chicks hide under their parent’s wings, but usually only one survives. In addition to natural predators, cars hit chicks who haven’t fledged yet.
Young Sandhill Cranes are precocial: able to swim and leave the nest within a day after hatching. Both parents feed seeds, insects, berries, frogs, crayfish, grubs and roots to their chicks who remain with their parents for about ten months. Cranes can be observed in fields, prairies, wetlands as well as urban places such as golf courses.
Beginning in October, thousands of Sandhill Cranes migrate from their northern nesting grounds to warmer climates. About 25,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes fly to Florida for the winter, where they join our resident population of about 4000-5,000 Florida Sandhill Cranes. The Florida Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) is a subspecies of the Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), and the two species look similar. Our Florida Sandhill Cranes do not migrate, however.
Although Greater Sandhill Cranes are not endangered, the Florida Sandhill Crane is listed as threatened in the state, due to loss of habitat as wetlands are continually developed. Once Florida Sandhill Cranes were overhunted; now they are protected and it is against the law to kill or feed one.
Hopefully, these magnificent birds will continue to grace our ponds and skies with their melodies. You may enjoy the migratory Greater Sandhill Cranes, as well as our non-migratory resident species, who share space when their “snowbird” cousins arrive each fall. Cranes can live up to 20 years. The oldest Sandhill Crane fossil, estimated to be 2.5 million years old, was discovered in Florida. Will they survive another million years?