Species Status –
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are long-legged, long-necked, gray, heron-like birds with a patch of bald, red skin on top of their head. Cranes fly with necks outstretched like geese, whereas herons fly with necks tucked in on their backs. For positive identification, look for reddish skin on top of the crane’s head.
The Florida sandhill crane can reach a height of 47.2 inches (120 centimeters) with a wingspan around 78.7 inches (200 centimeters) (Nesbitt 1996). This species is gray with a long neck and legs, and a bald spot of red skin on the top of its head. The sandhill crane is unique in flight as it can be seen flying with its neck stretched out completely.
Two subspecies of sandhill crane occur in Florida. The Florida sandhill crane (G. c. pratensis), numbering 4,000 to 5,000, is a non-migratory year-round breeding resident. They are joined every winter by 25,000 migratory greater sandhill cranes (G. c. tabida), the larger of the two subspecies. The greater sandhill crane winters in Florida but nests in the Great Lakes region. Sandhill cranes nest during late winter and spring on mats of vegetation about two feet in diameter and in shallow water.
Florida sandhill cranes inhabit freshwater marshes, prairies, and pastures (Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2001). They occur throughout peninsular Florida north to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia; however, they are less common at the northernmost and southernmost portions of this range. Florida’s Kissimmee and Desoto prairie regions are home to the state’s most abundant populations.
Two eggs are normally laid. Cranes are monogamous breeders. Within 24 hours of hatching, the young are capable of following their parents away from the nest. Together, they forage for seeds and roots, crop plants such as corn and peanuts, insects, snakes, frogs and occasionally young birds or small mammals.
Cranes are quite omnivorous feeding on seeds, grain, berries, insects, earthworms, mice, small birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, crayfish, but do not “fish” like herons.
Resident sandhill cranes are usually seen in very small groups or pairs. In November and December, however, large flocks of northern cranes move in, more than doubling the population in the state and then leave during March and April. The sandhill crane is a close relative to the nearly extinct whooping crane, which is being reintroduced into the state. Young sandhills weigh about twelve pounds, males are larger than females, but external markings are identical. Cranes live to be older than most birds, some reaching 20 years old.
Florida sandhill cranes are a non-migratory species that nests in freshwater ponds and marshes. This species is monogamous (breeds with one mate). Courtship consists of dancing, which features jumping, running, and wing flapping (International Crane Foundation, n.d.). Sandhill crane nests are built by both mates with grass, moss, and sticks. Females lay two eggs that incubate for 32 days. Both male and female participate in incubating the eggs (Nesbitt 1996). The offspring will begin traveling from the nest with their parents just 24-hours after hatching. At ten months old, juveniles are able to leave their parents (Nesbitt 1996). Bonding between pairs begins at two years old.
Degradation or direct loss of habitat due to wetland drainage or conversion of prairie for development or agricultural use are the primary threats facing Florida sandhill cranes. The range of the Florida sandhill crane diminished in the southeastern United States during the 20th century, with breeding populations disappearing from coastal Texas, Alabama, and southern Louisiana due to degradation, habitat loss, and overhunting. (Meine and Archibald 1996).
Conservation and Management
The Florida sandhill crane is protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act and as a State-designated Threatened species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule.
Information obtained from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.