FLORIDA SANDHILL CRANE (Grus canadensis pratensis)

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Florida sandhill crane picture
Family: Gruidae

Order: Gruiformes

STATUS: Threatened

DESCRIPTION: A gray, long-legged, long-bodied, large-bodied bird about 1.2 meters high; resembles the more common great blue heron at a distance, but at close range it is easily distinguished from the heron by its characteristic red crown. Immature are brown. Sexes are identical in external appearance except that mature males are slightly larger than females. The call of the sandhill crane is very distinctive, melodious, rattling bugle, often delivered while the birds are in flight.

Another species of crane, the greater sandhill crane (G. c. tabida), is a migratory winter visitor to Florida and occupies the same area as the nonmigratory, permanent resident Florida sandhill crane; these two cranes are indistinguishable in the field.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: The Florida sandhill crane inhabits wet prairies, ponds, sparsely vegetated marshes, shallow flooded open areas, dry prairies, and low-lying improved cattle pastures that offer a good supply of food. Usually nests in shallow water of lakes, ponds, and open marshes that contain pickerelweed, maidencane, and arrowhead. It can be found in suitable habitat throughout most of peninsular Florida, except Monroe and Dade counties and west of Apalachicola River (and formerly there only in small numbers). Florida presently supports a population of about 4,000 Florida sandhill cranes.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The Florida subspecies is very sedentary in its home range. Large groups of Florida sandhill cranes are not common except for non-breeding birds using a common roost or local feeding conditions. The species becomes wary of man when persecuted, but some individuals will become very tame and will learn to trust people if not molested. The Florida subspecies shows much less fear of man than do the migrant cranes from the north. Nesting begins in late January and continues through June. Sandhill cranes typically lay 2 eggs on a mound of pulled-up aquatic vegetation in about one foot of water. Both parents share incubation duties and are said to defend the nest against intruding animals. Incubation lasts about 30 days and the hatchlings leave the nest the day after hatching. At about 70 days old they are almost the size of their parents and make their first flights. Chicks remain with parents for 10 months. When they do leave their families, young cranes join subadult flocks where they remain until they find a mate and secure a nesting territory. The sandhill crane's diet consists of a variety of insects, frogs, rodents, roots, tubers, seeds, and berries.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: The main factors in population declination are habitat degradation caused by human encroachment and low reproductive rate of the Florida sandhill crane, which presents the birds inability to rebuild any of the population losses suffered in the past and present. In recognition of these factors, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission classified the Florida sandhill crane as a "threatened" species in 1974.

HABITAT GUIDELINES: The Florida sandhill crane requires open upland habitat with low growth characteristics near permanent emergent wetland habitats. Any work proposed within 300 feet of a known nesting site, should be reviewed. Work should be allowed within this buffer zone when: (1) an upland perimeter buffer of 100 feet in width is managed adjacent to the nest site, where management shall consist of maintaining the buffer in its current state as suitable foraging habitat, and (2) a vegetative screen of native upland upland vegetation (at least 5 feet in height and 20 to 50 feet wide) is planted or maintained to provide an effective visual barrier to construction and other human disturbances.

If the applicant proposes limited open space uses adjacent to the nest site such as playgrounds, picnic areas, and exercise trails, the visual screen should be constructed as recommended above. Alternatively, the managed upland foraging zone could be increased in width to 250 feet, with all recreational facilities located outside of the widened foraging zone.

If golf course fairways are proposed adjacent to the nest site, the managed perimeter may be reduced to 50 feet in width and the visual screen may be eliminated, provided the adjacent fairway is at least 150 feet wide.

If it is determined that the habitat within the buffer zone is not suitable foraging habitat, the applicant should be allowed to proceed so long as there are no long or short term impacts on the nesting habitat. Conditions in this case should be determined on a case by case basis.

All work within 300 feet of the nest must be conducted outside the nesting season (February 1st through May 31st).

RECOMMENDATIONS: The Florida sandhill crane is under protection of state and federal law at this time. Since the loss of habitat is a somewhat controllable cause of a declining population, habitat preservation is a valuable management measure. The current outlook for the Florida sandhill crane, if it can be maintained on the protected habitats, is good. Transplanting wild birds, as well as introducing captive-reared birds into suitable areas where crane numbers are low, appears to be a viable technique in the management of this threatened species. It is hoped that these management strategies, plus continued ecological research, will prevent the Florida sandhill crane from reaching a more critical status.

Stys, B. 1994. Ecology and habitat protection needs of Florida sandhill cranes on areas proposed for land conversion activities. Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Nongame Wildlife Program Technical Report No. 14. Tallahassee, FL. 27pp.

Content updated Date February 24, 2005