Siesta Key's Sand Hill Cranes:
The different sub-species of Sandhill Crane vary greatly in size and weight. Lesser Sandhills, who breed at more northern latitudes such as the arctic, are the smallest, weighing on average about 6-7 pounds and standing 3-3.5 feet tall. At the other end of the extreme, temperate-nesting Greater Sandhills are the largest sub-species and average 4.5-5 feet tall and 10-14 pounds. Body plumage is characterized by varying shades of gray. In many areas, wild Sandhills preen iron-rich mud into their feathers creating a deep rusty brown hue which lasts during spring and summer. As fall advances, these rusty feathers molt and the birds return to their grayish appearance. In some regions, however, iron-rich mud is absent and the birds appear grey all year. The forehead and crown are covered with reddish skin. Face, chin, upper throat, and nape are white to pale gray. Adults have a white cheek patch. Legs and toes are black. In general, males and females are virtually indistinguishable but within a breeding pair, males tend to be larger than females.
Juvenile plumage changes from cinnamon brown to gray as the bird matures during the first year.
Sandhill Cranes are the most abundant of the world’s cranes. They are widely (though intermittently) distributed throughout North America, extending into Cuba and far northeastern Siberia. The three migratory subspecies (Lesser, Greater and Canadian) are distributed across a broad breeding range in the northern U.S. and Canada as well as eastern Siberia, with wintering grounds in the southern United States and northern Mexico. The three non-migratory subspecies (Mississippi, Cuban, and Florida) have restricted ranges in the southern United States and Cuba.
Guard Calls are single loud vocalizations used to warn other cranes of danger or to threaten other cranes. These calls are sometimes echoed by the other member of the pair.
All cranes are omnivorous. Sandhill Cranes are generalists and feed on a wide variety of plant tubers, grains, small vertebrates (e.g. mice and snakes), and invertebrates such as insects or worms. Sandhills find these foods in uplands and in shallow wetlands. Like most cranes, flightless chicks forage primarily on a diet of insects and other protein filled foods during their early stages of rapid growth. The Sandhill’s tendency to feed on plant tubers creates conflicts with farming. Sandhill Cranes are adept at probing in the ground and finding planted agricultural seeds such as corn. When large flocks of cranes feed on planted fields, the damage they cause to an unprotected crop can be severe enough to force the farmer to replant the entire field. Threats:
Loss and degradation of riverine and wetland ecosystems are the most important threats to Sandhill Crane populations. For the migratory populations, this is of greatest concern in staging and wintering areas. Spring staging areas along the Platte River in Nebraska are of special concern because of their importance to the migratory subspecies and the development pressures facing this region. Approximately 80% of all Sandhill Cranes utilize a 75-mile stretch of the Platte River in spring migration. Elsewhere, small breeding populations can face disproportionate mortality on fall staging areas due to over-hunting. Residential and commercial development pressures facing lands occupied by birds belonging to non-migratory subspecies in Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba also pose significant threats.
Species accounts derived from: Johnsgard PA. 1983. Cranes of the world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sandhill Crane parent with child about four weeks old. Key Biscayne, Florida - Author: birdphotos.com licensed under the Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
Sandhill Crane flying, by Thomas O'Neil at thomasoneil.com licensed under the Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.5