Animal of the Month
January 2020

Name: Sandhill Crane

Class: Aves
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Gruidae
Genus: Grus
Species: G. canadensis
Number of Species: Five (possibly six)
G. canadensis canadensis
G. canadensis pratensis
G. canadensis nesiotes
G. canadensis tabida
G. canadensis pulla
G. canadensis rowani (disputed)

Size: 31.5-47.2 inches tall, wingspan of 5-6 feet.
Weight: 6.5-14 lbs.

Characteristics: Long neck, narrow head, stilt-like legs, large wings, small tail feathers..
Color(s): Gray body, with gray and black wings and black and red on the head; legs black. Sometimes feathers can be brown for certain subspecies or due to feeding in mud..
Behavior: Diurnal. Most species are migratory. They can form very large flocks comprised of thousands of cranes.
Preferred Habitat: Wetlands, fields and prairies.
Range: Widely found across North America from Canada to Mexico. Also found in parts of northern Russia and Cuba.
Grains, mice, crayfish, roots, seeds, peanuts, earthworms, snakes, lizards, insects, small birds.
Lifespan: 20 years.

Status: Most populations are Least Concern, though some populations are Critically Endangered!!!

A common sight across North America, the sandhill crane has stalked wetlands and prairies since at least the Miocene period. These great birds make much of North America their home, migrating between the continent's wetlands and plains. Only a few small populations in Mississippi, Florida and Cuba live there year-round.

Sandhill cranes are large birds, standing around three or four feet tall with a wingspan of about five to six feet wide. Most species are migratory and will form large flocks that contain up to thousands of individuals. They eat a variety of foods including grains, mice, crayfish, roots, seeds, peanuts, earthworms, snakes, lizards, insects or even small birds! Unlike their cousin the heron, they do not eat fish.

Most sandhill cranes spend the winter in the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, as well as parts of northern Mexico. As spring begins the cranes will move gradually northward to the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest. From February through April, the largest gathering of sandhill cranes occurs in Nebraska along the Platte River. By late spring and through summer and fall, the cranes will breed in their nesting grounds. Some cranes breed in Idaho, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, Alaska and various parts of Canada. While most sandhill cranes migrate, there are three small populations in Mississippi, Florida and Cuba that remain in their habitats year-round.

Sandhill cranes make loud rattling "k-r-o-o-o-o!" sounds. These sounds vary in tone and duration depending on the intention, the loudest being made by both males and females during the mating season. Males and females will sing together in harmony. The cranes will dance during their mating ritual, which involves bowing, jumping, wing flapping and the throwing of sticks. Sandhill crane parents will build a nest from plant matter and raise the young together. The female usually lays two eggs, which hatch a month later. After two months of growth the chicks are old enough to be independent, but will fly with their parents during the southern migration in the fall. It takes two years for a sandhill crane to become mature enough to start its own family.

Most sandhill crane populations are growing and are classed as Least Concern. However, the stationary subspecies living in Mississippi and Cuba are critically endangered. The subspecies living in Florida is also threatened. There was once a population living in Louisiana that went extinct in 1910. This is largely due to habitat loss and urban development. With fewer wetlands and savannahs to roost in, the cranes simply have nowhere to go. They are one of many species in the world that are losing ground as humanity expands into their habitat.

Despite the threats, the cranes have found sanctuary in Mississippi. The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge was founded in 1975 to preserve the habitat so critical to the crane's survival. The refuge also has worked to track crane movement, breed cranes in captivity and restore the natural ecosystem so the cranes and other organisms can recover. At the time of the refuge's founding only about 35 cranes remained in Mississippi. Now, thanks to the hard work of the refuge staff, there are about 110 cranes and their numbers are growing! This is an excellent example of how, with dedication, species can be saved from the brink of extinction.

To learn more about sandhill cranes and what is being done to protect them, check out these fantastic websites:

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge - Preserving wetlands in Mississippi to protect the critically endangered subspecies of sandhill crane.

International Crane Foundation-Dedicated to protecting cranes around the world.

National Wildlife Federation - Committed to protecting wildlife in America and abroad, the National Wildlife Federation offers information on the sandhill crane and its threatened populations.


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