“What are those!?”
As a Florida native I take the regular presence of the sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) for granted, but my out of state visitor was quite shaken both by their size and by their shrill call. To be fair, at just under 4ft in height with a wingspan of over 6ft, these birds are impressive to say the least! Sandhill cranes are mostly gray with a bald spot of ruby red skin on the top of their heads and a white cheek patch. They have long legs and a long neck which is kept outstretched in flight. The average lifespan of a sandhill crane is seven years but individuals have been known to live for more than 20 years.
Two subspecies of sandhill crane can be found in Florida. Approximately 5,000 Florida sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis pratensis) call the state home year-round and do not migrate. During the winter season an additional 25,000 greater sandhill cranes (Grus canadesis tabida) migrate to the state from the Great Lakes region.
Sandhill cranes are omnivorous feeders and thrive on a diet of rodents, small birds, snakes, insects, amphibians, lizards, worms, seeds, and berries, as well as plant shoots and roots. Sandhill cranes form monogamous pairs at about two years of age. They win over their life partners with an elaborate courtship dance which includes displays of jumping, running, and wing flapping. Female cranes lay an average of two eggs per clutch which both parents will sit on for a period of 29-32 day before hatching. The resulting fuzzy, reddish-colored chicks will diligently follow their parents on foot almost everywhere, within 24 hours after hatching. Sandhill crane chicks fledge, or begin to fly, at approximately 70 days of age.
Sadly, many chicks die before fledging due to predation. A variety of animals including racoons, predatory birds, otters, feral hogs, gators, coyotes, and domestic dogs and cats predate on young cranes. Cranes may re-nest up to three times in a year if they lose their young. Chicks typically stay with their parents for the first ten months of life before setting of on their own.
Sandhill cranes are threatened by habitat loss, encroaching development, and traffic. Cranes prefer to nest in wetlands and forage in uplands. If these two habitat types are not available near one another cranes may be forced to travel a great distance from their nest to find food, making them more vulnerable to traffic, predators, and powerlines.
If you have cranes in your neighborhood there are some important steps you can take to be a better natural neighbor. Understand that it is illegal to feed sandhill cranes in the state of Florida and discourage your neighbors from feeding them. Fed cranes become habituated to people and can lose their natural fear of humans. This draws them closer to human homes where they can be exposed to lawn chemicals, potentially aggressive pets, and additional traffic. Furthermore, cranes thrive on a diversified diet and can suffer ill effects when their natural eating patterns become disrupted by being fed birdseed or corn. If you use bird feeders hang them high enough so that cranes cannot directly access them.
If you are lucky enough to have your yard chosen as crane nesting site, be sure to keep your distance from nesting cranes to prevent nest abandonment. Try to always stay at least 100 yards away from any nesting site, instead use binoculars to view the family from afar. Do not allow your pets to harass or predate on cranes by keeping your dogs leashed or fenced and your cats indoors. Finally, keep an eye out for cranes when driving and allow them time to cross the road, especially during breeding season when they may have young with them.
According to fossil evidence, sandhill cranes have called Florida home for 2.5 million years! With some consideration for their needs and natural behaviors we can assure that they will continue to thrive here for many more to come.
For more information on sandhill cranes please visit https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW493. To learn more about living in harmony with your natural neighbors reach out to UF/IFAS Lake County Extension.