Birds of Heaven

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.

Typical one-child crane family

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.

Distinctive red patch

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.

Sandhill crane

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.

Shifting habitats
Florida habitat map from 2003 - Large part of it is gone now

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.

Looking at you

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.

Forever Love

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.

Sitting on a nest in the marshes

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!

Baby pics for the family album

Cranes learn most of their behavior as well as their migratory routes (as opposed to genetic coding). Parenting and imprinting at an early age determines the behavior and success of the individual bird. "All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten" has never been truer. In order to learn, you need good teachers and cranes are parents and teachers "par excellence".

Two month after fledging, the young ones are airborne and receive intensive flight training. At ten months, juveniles are fit enough to leave their parents. Migratory parents will twice travel the entire migration route with the juveniles, teaching dangers and rest spots.

Adult and juvenile sandhills with the distinctive reddish feathers. The juvenile has not yet developed the red skin patch on the head.

Part of their remarkable social organization is, when resting as a group, cranes appoint one of their own as guard to watch over the group. He/she will issue a specific calling to alert the others.

En Route

All crane species are great fliers. At average 25-35 mph, they fly by day and smartly rely on thermal columns and tail winds to steady their course. They fly very high (typically 5,000-7,000 feet but can easily go 13,000 feet) and some even cross the Himalayas and Mt. Everest on their migratory route. Migratory cranes travel 200-300 miles a day but can reach 500 miles with a good tail wind. Cranes take turns in leading the group when flying, rotating in intervals from front to the back to get some rest - the same "pacelining" that competitive cyclists do. It is group benefit over individual gain.

Flying at such altitude gives them the overview, the birds can better preview inclement weather and easier detect stragglers in the flock. They also become invisible to the human eye until they descend on their destination, seemingly dropping from the heavens. Hence, the likely origin of the name "Birds of Heaven".

Renewing Vows

Cranes dance and sing, sometimes for no other reason than joy.

Overall, they are very vocal. In total, 16 different crane callings have been recognized (by humans, cranes probably differentiate more). The callings mean different things in different situations and intonations, depending on whether they are made once or several times - they can signal intrusion, predator, where are you?, etc. It is clear that cranes possess a complex language.

Mated pairs of cranes engage in unison calling, which is a complex and extended series of coordinated calls. While calling, cranes stand in an upright posture, usually with their heads thrown back and beaks skyward during the display. It is the equivalence to "renewing their vows." Family members also recognize each other's voices.

Let's Dance

Cranes taught the humans to dance. Crane courtship features jumping, running, bowing, and wing flapping. Crane "dances", especially their courtship rituals, are famous and countless artists have portrayed them. Nicknamed the Bolshoi of the animal world, cranes dance frequently, not just for courtship but also to reinforce pair bonding and relieve tension. Pre-adult cranes practice dancing for over 3 years and when on a date, cranes dance together for over a month, several times a day, before they actually mate. Indeed, cranes check each other out thoroughly before deciding to breed.

Indigenous populations all over the world have ritualistic crane dances and many societies credit the cranes for giving us dance. Tai Chi, karate and ballet moves take their inspirations from cranes.

Cranes in the Mist

By now you have read a lot about cranes and hopefully understand my fascination for these fabulous creatures. They are beautiful, highly intelligent beings, and we could learn a few things from them. How anyone can harm them willingly is beyond me, and criminal.

Interested in becoming a "craniac"? Here are some suggestions for further reading and viewing:

  • I highly recommend Peter Matthiessen's "The Birds of Heaven". It is a thoroughly researched and well written account on the global situation of cranes. I have read it several times since its first edition in 2001.
  • Another one would be "A Chorus of Cranes" by Paul Johnsgard and accompanied by the photography of Paul Mangelsen. Published 2015, it provides a feast for the eyes.
  • George & Tex and any other video with Dr. George Archibald, the eminent authority on anything crane related.
  • PBS documentary on Nebraska crane gathering

Jump for joy and dance like a crane!


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Created By
Hilda Champion