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Bird Species Spotlight: Sandhill Crane

by Jake Jacoby | December 4, 2017

Sandhill Crane © Jake JacobySandhill cranes are large birds with a wingspan of over 6′ and a body length of almost 4′. Their long legs and necks give them an almost dinosaurian appearance and they can routinely reach a weight of more than 10 pounds. Their common name refers to habitat like that at the Platte River, on the edge of Nebraska’s “Sandhills” on the American Plains. Their large wingspans make them very skilled soaring birds, similar to hawks and eagles. They use the thermals to obtain lift, and can stay aloft for many hours, requiring only occasional flapping of their wings and therefore expending little energy.

Migration at dawn © Jake Jacoby

Sandhill crane migration at dawn.

Sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil histories of any extant (existing) bird. The fossil of a crane was found in Nebraska that is estimated to be nearly 10 million years old.

Sandhill crane colt and flowers © Jake Jacoby

Sandhill colt walking in the flowers.

Sandhill cranes are social birds that usually live in pairs or family groups throughout the year and have very specific body language. This social body language is used to display arousal, recruit other cranes to dance, preserve the nest territory, announce intent, establish dominance, and bond male and female pairs. During migration and in the winter, unrelated cranes come together to form “survival groups” that forage and roost together. Such groups often congregate at migration and wintering sites, sometimes in the thousands. One famous spot in the migratory stopover is on the Platte River in Nebraska. In the early spring this is a truly wildlife spectacle where some 250,000 birds gather. Another popular spot is in Bosque del Apache, New Mexico. Florida populations numbering approximately 5,000 do not migrate, but cranes from northern areas migrate through Florida in the winter—a true snowbird!

Sandhill crane mom on nest with colts © Jake Jacoby

Sandhill crane mom on nest with 1-day old colts.

Sandhill cranes frequently give a loud, trumpeting call that suggests a rolled “R” in the throat, and they can be heard for a long distance. Mated pairs of cranes engage in “unison” calling. The cranes stand close together, calling in a synchronized and complex duet. The female makes two calls for everyone from the male. They forage for grains and invertebrates in prairies, grasslands, and marshes, and when available, will eat rodents, snails, frogs, lizards, snakes as well as cultivated grains. Large groups can be seen feeding on grain in the University of Florida cattle pens in Gainesville during the winter migration. They do not hunt in open water or hunch their necks the way herons do. Outside of the breeding season, they often roost in the deeper water of ponds or lakes where they are safe from predators. While these water sites may freeze over during the night, the crane’s legs contain a substance similar to anti-freeze which protects them.

Sandhill crane roosting on water © Jake Jacoby

Roosting overnight in the water.

Like many other birds, sandhill cranes perform elaborate courtship displays during the mating season. They perform graceful motions almost like dancing. They jump up and down facing each other, with wings extended, over and over again. The male will often grasp and toss vegetation like grasses and stems into the air while leaping upward as each bird occasionally vocalizes.

Sandhill crane mom feeding colt © Jake Jacoby

Sandhill crane mom feeding colt.

Nesting sites are among marsh vegetation near or in shallow water or on dry ground near the water. Nests are built by both adults and are composed of a mound of plant material pulled up from around the site. Two eggs are usually laid, sometimes one, but very rarely three. Incubation is done by both parents for 29–32 days. After hatching, the young, called colts, leave the nest within a day and will follow their parents in the marsh. Both parents feed the colts at first, but they gradually learn to feed themselves. They take their first flight at 65 to 75 days after hatching and will remain with their parents for 9–10 months.

Florida Fish and Game Code 68A-4.00 (3) makes it illegal to feed sandhill cranes in the State of Florida.

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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