Sandhill cranes are a fairly common and impressive sight around Florida. Unlike many other wading birds, these very large, long-necked birds don’t shy away from populated areas. You’ll frequently find them on manicured, suburban lawns near retention ponds; around public parks, or sauntering across city streets.
Sandhill cranes are hard to miss: the tall, gray bird has a red patch of skin on its head and “tufted rump” feathers, and stands almost 4-feet tall.
For me, they’ve always brought to mind the Sneetches by Dr. Seuss. Maybe it’s because of their long necks or fantastic, bugling call as they fly overhead. (You can hear a sandhill crane call on this page). If Dr. Seuss were to create a bird call, I think it would sound like a sandhill crane.
Although you can find sandhill cranes in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, Florida has its own non-migratory subspecies that is a year-round resident called the Florida sandhill crane. Another, larger subspecies winters in Florida and in the Southwest (like human snowbirds), roughly quadrupling the overall sandhill crane population in the winter months.
Not all Florida sandhill cranes live in suburbia, and they would likely be better off if they didn’t, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Living in suburbia puts them at risk to several threats: predation by family pets, an increased risk of being hit by cars (which happens), exposure to pesticides and choking hazards (garbage, fishing line), and more chances to fly into power lines.
Also, many people with sandhill cranes living in their neighborhoods feed the birds corn. However, the omnivorous sandhill crane diet is typically very diverse; therefore, eating only corn for them is sort of the equivalent of you or I hitting McDonald’s day after day – it’s not very healthy.
It’s for these reasons that wildlife managers really don’t want sandhill cranes living among us – and why it’s actually illegal to feed them.
Feeding them also makes them more likely to become aggressive toward humans, and sandhill cranes have been known to attack children, according to the FWC. Nature photographer, blogger, and artist Vickie Henderson said sandhill cranes do get into scraps with each other (or at least threaten to) when they are establishing feeding territories, as seen in this amazing picture she took, below. The crane in the air is doing what is called a “jump rake.”
Sandhill cranes will also peck at rearview mirrors (sometimes smashing them out), at storefront windows, and at other reflective objects that appear to them to display another, uninvited sandhill crane. Males with a nesting female are more likely to peck at car mirrors, say wildlife experts. Some locals who regularly encounter sandhill cranes will cover their rearview mirrors (while parked) to avoid having them pecked out by a territorial sandhill crane – and this is recommended by the FWC. Generally, sandhill cranes that I’ve come across are pretty mild-mannered.
Despite the fact that sandhill crane-sightings are pretty common, there are only about 4,000-5,000 Florida sandhill cranes, and the species is federally protected and considered Threatened by the state of Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule.
So appreciate these beautiful birds, but cover your mirrors — and don’t feed the sneetches.
Read more about the Florida sandhill crane at FWC.
Photo credit: Thank you to Vickie Henderson for giving me permission to use her photo of the fighting sandhill cranes! Check out her site for more photos and information on sandhill cranes and other birds.
If you liked this article, please follow me on WordPress or Twitter, leave a comment, or suggest a story idea!