Every spring, as many as 600,000 sandhill cranes gather along Nebraska's Platte River, one of the truly great natural spectacles in the world. But Florida residents don't have to make the trek to Nebraska to see these beautiful birds. All they have to do is look in their backyard or neighborhood park or preserve.
That's because Florida has its own sandhill crane subspecies that lives year-round in the Sunshine State, particularly in central part of the Peninsula as far south as northern Palm Beach County. In some places, sandhill cranes, known scientifically as Grus canadensis, are so common that their presence can be taken for granted as if part of the scenery. There are even signs warning motorists of sandhill crane crossings. Farther south they become rarities, although there are records of sandhill cranes nesting as far south as southern Miami-Dade County.
But sandhill cranes are also winter visitors to Florida. They make the twice-yearly trek between their summer breeding ground in the Northern tier of the United States and Canada to the warmer climes of Mexico and the southern U.S., including Florida.
By and large, the sandhill population is in good shape but the Florida subspecies is considered threatened, and another subspecies found in Mississippi is endangered. A third group, found in Cuba, is also considered endangered. However, sandhill cranes overall have been slowly increasing in number since the 1960s, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature rates the sandhill crane a "least concern" on its extinction scale. Cranes have been able to overcome loss of habitat in part by adapting to human settings, like golf courses and subdivisions.
Sandhill cranes are found over much of North America, breeding in Alaska and northern Canada and in parts of the northern United States and the Rockies. The annual gathering at the Platte River represents as much as 80 percent of the world's sandhill crane populaton. For Nebraskans and for birders, this is a big deal, not to mention economically important. But some fear that global warming might doom this annual display of nature; instead of passing through Nebraska, sandhill cranes might be wintering there. If you really want to see these migrating cranes without having to trek to the Platte, try Paynes Praire Preserve State Park near Gainesville during winter.
At four feet tall and with a wingspan approaching seven feet, sandhills stand out, literally. If that isn't enough to ID them, they also have a distinctive red mask that's clearly visible at distance. The only other bird you're likely to see in South Florida that rivals it in size and shape is the great blue heron. And cranes stand tall even against the great blue.
Sandhill cranes are found in grasslands, wet prairies and marshes. They build mound-like nests usually where there's standing water. Both male and females gather material for the nest, usually using whatever vegetation might be handy. Rarely, they will nest on dry ground. Cranes mate for life. Females generally lay a clutch of two eggs, and both parents take turns incubating them. Newborns are able to scamper out of the nest, and even swim, shortly after hatching. Fledglings hang with their parents for nine or 10 months, through their first migration, before striking out on their own. However, usually only one of the two hatchlings live long enough to fledge.
These birds are not picky eaters. They will eat seeds, grains, bugs, aquatic critters, reptiles and amphibians, small mammals and even nestlings. We've seen them take on water snakes, though unsuccessfully. In turn, cranes are considered good eats by a fairly long list of predators, including raccoons. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, sandhill cranes defend themselves by kicking. They are members of Gruidae, the crane family. The earliest fossil remains of a crane are 2.5 million years old, found in Florida.