Imagine a species that has been on earth for 60 million years, has outlasted 99% of all other species, and literally oversees the globe from high above. Meet one of the world's most intriguing species, the crane.
Depending on where you live, you might have never encountered a crane in person. But if you have, you will remember. Cranes are not just large birds, cranes have a presence.
I have always lived in areas that were not crane habitat and, for me, spotting a crane creates a highlight for the day. I am not alone in my love for cranes. Cranes have held a mythical, nearly sacred place in ancient history for many societies. Associated with immortality, a herald of spring and light, a disguise of the god Apollo, a messenger of god - in most cultures they are seen as harbingers of long life, good fortune, harmony, and fidelity.
Cranes have existed on earth since the Eocene, which began after the extinction of the dinosaurs, about 65 million years ago. They are the oldest living bird species in the world and one of the most evolutionary successful life forms - they inhabited this planet long, long before any human.
Cranes are tall, long-legged and long-necked birds and the largest flying birds in the world. There are 15 crane species, living on all continents except South America and Antarctica. Cranes vary in size, weight and plumage, but some species can be up to 6 feet tall with a wingspan of around 6 feet, reaching the size of humans. Standing eye-to-eye with this bird will have a lasting impact on you.
Cranes also have a relatively long lifespan. If they survive human predators and other dangers, 25 years is not uncommon. The oldest sandhill crane was known to be 36 years, a Siberian crane held in captivity reached 80 years.
North America is home to only two crane species —the sandhill crane and the whooping crane. The whooping crane is essentially all white and slightly larger than the sandhill crane. It has been tethering on the brink of extinction since the early 1900s, with 80 migrating individuals left. You might remember “Operation Migration” where a human in an ultralight successfully led whooping cranes on their migration south. This, together with a breeding program in Florida and Texas, was successful enough to stabilize the small population.
Sandhill cranes are the most common cranes in the North America and the images presented here are all of sandhill cranes. The name "Sandhill" refers to their main habitat at the Platte River near the edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills and this species can easily be identified by their grey/reddish plumage and the shape of the red skin patch on their head.
The number of sandhill cranes (five sub-species lumped together) is currently estimated to be around 450,000. Sandhill cranes are migratory, though not the Florida sub-species who, just like many of us, have opted to stay in Florida all year round. The Florida sandhill crane population is estimated to be around 4,000 individuals and this iconic member of the Florida eco-system is state-listed as threatened.
Crane population is habitat driven. I live in the very southwest of Florida and have to travel at least an hour to get to a crane habitat. Florida sandhill cranes can occur throughout Florida up into southern Georgia but are less common at the southern extreme of the state. In general, cranes inhabit freshwater marshes, prairies, and pastures. The maps below shows the continuing loss of habitat in North America. The habitat gain in the north is due to global warming.
Besides the tremendous loss of habitat and continued hunting, cranes are very vulnerable to man-made hazards such as fences and power lines which can result in broken wings, legs and necks. To put it into perspective, to save the cranes you have to save the habitat. We are all responsible for it.
Think of cranes as highly intelligent birds with an elaborate social system. Very territorial during breeding season, they can be extremely social in non-breeding times. Large flocks gather to roost and socialize, making it safer to rest, but also giving the young ones a chance to meet partners. The famously large crane gathering on the Platte River plains in Central Nebraska March/April is the biggest dating site for any spouseless crane. I hope that one day I will have a chance to see this with my own eyes.
Bonding between pairs begins at two years old, breeding begins between two and seven years of age. Cranes are perennially monogamous, that is they "mate for life". Pairs need to practice being parents together to successfully raise young. On occasion, if the breeding attempts are unsuccessful, the pair will divorce. If a mate dies, the survivor will choose a new mate, but mating success often depends on how many breeding seasons a pair has been together.
Once two cranes have finally decided on the right mate, the work starts. Both male and female will build the nest and take turns to incubate the eggs for a little over a month. Female sandhill cranes lay 1-2 eggs, oval shaped, about 4.5" long. In just 24 hours after hatching, the young ones will travel from the nest with their parents. The colts, as the young ones are called, will be able to run, swim, feed, but continue to get help from both parents over the next few months. Typically, only one hatchling will make it into adulthood. The range of non-human predators is large, from bobcats, foxes, raccoons, to eagles and bears. With regards to human predators - hunters in the US kill an estimated 40,000 sandhill cranes each year!