Wild South Florida — Sandhill Crane
 
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Sandhill Crane
sandhil crane
Sandhill crane, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach.
sandhill crane in wetlands  

Sandhill crane, Grus canadensis, is one of those uncommon common birds in South Florida. We've seen them four times over the past five years, at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach and at Grassy Waters Preserve in West Palm Beach, and usually at a distance. It is a winter visitor to South Florida, but there is a subspecies known as the Florida sandhill crane that makes its home year-round in Central and Northern Florida.

By and large, the sandhill population is in good shape but the Florida subspecies is considered threatened, and another subspecies found in Mississippi is endangered. A third group, Cuba, is also considered endangered. However, sandhill cranes have been slowly increasing since the 1960s, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has the sandhill on its least concern list.

These cranes are found over much of North America, breeding in Alaska and northern Canada and in parts of the northern United States and the Rockies, while wintering in the southern U.S. and Mexico. Every spring, as many as 600,000 sandhill cranes — about 80 percent of the world's populaton — make a pit stop along a 60-mile stretch of Nebraska's Platte River as they migrate north. Some fear that global warming might doom this annual display of nature; instead of pasing through Nebraska, sandhill cranes might be wintering there. If you really want to see this bird without having to trek to the Platte, try the Paynes Praire Preserve State Park near Gainesville during winter.

At four feet tall and with a wingspan approaching seven feet, sandhills stand out, literally. They also have a distinctive red mask.

 
 
 

The only other bird you're likely to see in South Florida that rivals it in size and shape is the great blue heron.

Sandhill cranes are found in grasslands, wet prairies and marshes. They build mound-like nests usually where there's standing water. Both male and females gather material for the nest, usually using whatever vegetation might be handy. Rarely, they will nest on dry ground. Cranes mate for life. Females generally lay a clutch of two eggs, and both parents take turns incubating them. Newborns are able to scamper out of the nest, and even swim, shortly after hatching. Fledglings hang with their parents for nine or 10 months, through their first migration, before striking out on their own. However, usually only one of the two hatchlings live long enough to fledge.

These birds are not picky eaters. They will eat seeds, grains, bugs, aquatic critters, reptiles and amphibians, small mammals and even nestlings. In turn, cranes are considered good eats by a fairly long list of predators, including raccoons. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Sandhill cranes defend themselves by kicking. They are members of Gruidae, the crane family. The earliest fossil remains of a crane are 2.5 million years old, found in Florida.

 
Photographs by David Sedore
 
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Links for Sandhill Crane Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology National Audubon Society National Geographic Society
 
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.