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The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is a species of large crane of North America and extreme northeastern Siberia. The common name of this bird references habitat like that at the Platte River, on the edge of Nebraska's Sandhills on the American Plains. This is the most important stopover area for the nominotypical subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane (Grus canadensis canadensis), with up to 450,000 of these birds migrating through annually.
Adults are gray overall; during breeding, their plumage is usually much worn and stained, particular in the migratory populations, and looks nearly ochre. The average weight of the larger males is 4.57 kg (10.1 lb), while the average weight of females is 4.02 kg (8.9 lb), with a range of 2.7 to 6.7 kg (6.0 to 14.8 lb) across the subspecies. Sandhill cranes have red foreheads, white cheeks and long dark pointed bills. In flight, their long dark legs trail behind, and their long necks keep straight. Immature birds have reddish brown upperparts and gray underparts. The sexes look alike. Sizes vary among the different subspecies; the average height of these birds is around 80 to 122 cm (2 ft 7 in to 4 ft 0 in). Their wing chords are typically 41.8–60 cm (16.5–23.6 in), tails are 10–26.4 cm (3.9–10.4 in), the exposed culmens are 6.9–16 cm (2.7–6.3 in) long and the tarsi measure 15.5–26.6 cm (6.1–10.5 in).
These cranes frequently give a loud trumpeting call that suggests a French-style "r" rolled in the throat, and they can be heard from a long distance. Mated pairs of cranes engage in "unison calling." The cranes stand close together, calling in a synchronized and complex duet. The female makes two calls for every one from the male.
Sandhill cranes' large wingspans, typically 1.65 to 2.29 m (5 ft 5 in to 7 ft 6 in), make them very skilled soaring birds, similar in style to hawks and eagles. Utilizing thermals to obtain lift, they can stay aloft for many hours, requiring only occasional flapping of their wings and consequently expending little energy. Migratory flocks contain hundreds of birds, and can create clear outlines of the normally invisible rising columns of air (thermals) they ride.
Sandhill cranes fly south for the winter. In their wintering areas, they form flocks of over 10,000. One place this happens is at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 100 mi (160 km) south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There is an annual Sandhill Crane Festival in November.
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Sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird. A 10-million-year-old crane fossil from Nebraska is said to be of this species, but this may be from a prehistoric relative or the direct ancestor of sandhill cranes and not belong in the genus Grus. The oldest unequivocal sandhill crane fossil is 2.5 million years old, older by half than the earliest remains of most living species of birds, primarily found from after the Pliocene/Pleistocene boundary some 1.8 million years ago. As these ancient sandhill cranes varied as much in size as present-day birds, those Pliocene fossils are sometimes described as new species. Grus haydeni may have been a prehistoric relative, or it may comprise material of a sandhill crane and its ancestor.
Subspecies and evolution
Sandhill cranes considerably vary in size (much of which is clinal) and in migratory habits. A female of G. c. canadensis averages 3.46 kg (7.6 lb), 37 in (94 cm) in length and has a wingspan of 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in). A male of G. c. tabida averages 5 kg (11 lb), 119 cm (47 in) in length and has a wingspan of 2.12 m (6 ft 11 in). The southern subspecies (along with G. c. rowani) are intermediate, roughly according to Bergmann's Rule.
Three subspecies are resident; pulla of the Gulf Coast of the U.S., pratensis of Florida and Georgia and nesiotes of Cuba. The northern populations exist as fragmented remains in the contiguous U.S. and a large and contiguous population from Canada to Beringia. These migrate to the southwestern United States and Mexico. These cranes are rare vagrants to China, South Korea and Japan and very rare vagrants to western Europe.
Six subspecies have been recognized in recent times:
- Lesser sandhill crane, Grus canadensis canadensis
- Cuban sandhill crane, Grus canadensis nesiotes – ESA: Endangered
- Florida sandhill crane, Grus canadensis pratensis – ESA: Endangered.
The Florida sandhill crane was listed as EC or easily confused in order to facilitate an attempted re-introduction of the Whooping Crane (Grus americana) into Florida. The attempt failed but the listing remained. The current list of endangered subspecies includes only 2 birds, nesiotes and rowani, with pratensis no longer listed.
- Mississippi sandhill crane, Grus canadensis pulla – ESA: Endangered
- Canadian sandhill crane, Grus canadensis rowani
- Greater sandhill crane, Grus canadensis tabida
The Canadian sandhill cranes are not distinct and were never accepted as a valid subspecies. The others can be somewhat more reliably distinguished in hand by measurements and plumage details, apart from the size differences already mentioned. Unequivocal identification often requires location information, which is often impossible in migrating birds.
Analysis of control region mtDNA haplotype data shows two major lineages. The Arctic and the subarctic migratory population, which includes the lesser sandhill cranes. The other lineages can be divided into a migratory and some indistinct clusters which can be matched to the resident subspecies. The lesser and greater sandhill cranes are quite distinct, their divergence dating to roughly 2.3–1.2 million years ago (mya), some time during the Late Pliocene or Early Pleistocene. Glaciation seemingly fragmented off a founder population of lesser sandhill cranes, because during each major ice age its present breeding range was frozen year-round. Stiil, sandhill cranes are amply documented from fossil and subfossil remains right to the modern era. Conceivably, they might be considered distinct species already, a monotypic G. canadensis and the greater sandhill crane, G. pratensis, which would include the other populations.
It appears as if the scant differences between southern Canadian and western U.S. populations result from genetic drift, due to the recent reduction in population and range fragmentation. Until the early 20th century, the southern migratory birds occupied a much larger and continuous range. Thus, the subspecies rowani may well be abandoned.
The two southern U.S. resident populations are somewhat more distinct. The Cuban population has been comparatively little studied but appears to have been established on the island for a long time. They and the migratory greater sandhill cranes proper may form a group of lineages that diverged much later from a range in the southern U.S. and maybe northern Mexico, where they were resident. The southern migratory population would then represent a later re-expansion which (re-)evolved their migratory habits independent from the northernmost birds, the geographically separated populations expanding rapidly when more habitat was available as the last ice age ended.
Sandhill cranes are fairly social birds that usually live in pairs or family groups through the year. During migration and winter, non-related cranes come together to form "survival groups" which forage and roost together. Such groups often congregate at migration and winter sites, sometimes in the thousands.
Sandhill cranes are mainly herbivorous, but eat various types of food, depending on availability. They often feed with their bills down to the ground as they root around for seeds and other foods, in shallow wetlands with vegetation or various upland habitats. Cranes readily eat cultivated foods such as corn, wheat and sorghum. Waste corn is useful to cranes preparing for migration, providing them with nutrients for the long journey. Among northern races of sandhill cranes, the diet is most varied, especially among breeding birds. They variously feed on berries, small mammals, insects, snails, reptiles and amphibians.
Sandhill cranes raise one brood per year. In non-migratory populations, laying begins between December and August. In migratory populations, laying usually begins in April or May. Both members of a breeding pair build the nest using plant material from the surrounding area. Nest sites are usually marshes, bogs or swales, though occasionally on dry land. Females lay one to three (usually two) oval, dull brown eggs with reddish markings. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 30 days. The chicks are precocial; they hatch covered in down, with their eyes open and able to leave the nest within a day. The parents brood the chicks for up to three weeks after hatching, feeding them intensively for the first few weeks, then gradually less frequently until they reach independence at nine or ten months old.
The chicks remain with their parents until one or two months before the parents lay the next clutch of eggs. After leaving their parents, the chicks form nomadic flocks with other juveniles and non-breeders. They remain in these flocks until they form breeding pairs at between two and seven years old.
As a conspicuous ground-dwelling species, sandhill cranes are at risk from predators. Mammals like foxes, raccoons, coyotes, wolves, bobcats and lynx often hunt them. Corvids, such as ravens and crows, and smaller raptors like hawks feed on young cranes and eggs. Cranes of all ages are hunted by eagles, large owls and Peregrine falcons. Sandhill cranes defend themselves and their young from aerial predators by jumping and kicking. For land predators, they move forward, often hissing, with their wings open and bill pointed. If the predator persists, the crane stabs with its bill (which is powerful enough to pierce the skull of a small carnivore) and kicks.
Status and conservation
Though sandhill cranes are not considered threatened as a species, the three southernmost subspecies are quite rare. Resident populations, not migratory birds, cannot choose secure breeding habitat. Many subpopulations were destroyed by hunting or habitat change. The greater sandhill crane proper initially suffered most; by 1940, probably fewer than 1,000 birds remained. Populations have since increased greatly again. At nearly 100,000, they are still fewer than the lesser sandhill crane, which, at about 400,000 individuals, is the most plentiful crane alive today.
Some migratory populations of sandhill cranes face population threats due to interspecies competition with snow geese. Since the 1990s, snow geese have eaten waste corn that the cranes also rely on prior to migration.
The Florida sandhill crane is far less common, with some 5,000 remaining. They are most threatened by habitat destruction. In Florida, they are protected by high monetary penalites for killing them, under state and federal law. The transplantation of wild birds and introduction of captive-reared birds into suitable low-population areas have been called a viable management technique.
The Mississippi sandhill crane has lost the most range; it used to live along most of the northern Gulf of Mexico coast, and its range was once nearly parapatric with that of its eastern neighbor. As of 2013, about 25 breeding pairs exist in an intensively managed population. The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge—established in 1975 when fewer than 35 of the birds existed—has the biggest release program for cranes on Earth, and 90% of the cranes there were raised in captivity. The second viable egg from a two-egg nest was occasionally removed from the nests, starting in 1965, to become part of a captive flock. This breeding flock is divided between the Audubon Institute's Species Survival Center and White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida. These cranes have produced offspring for annual releases into the refuge.
A Mississippi sandhill crane was the first bird to hatch from an egg fertilized by sperm that was thawed from a cryogenic state. This occurred at the Audubon Institute, as part of this subspecies' Endangered Species Recovery Plan.
Sandhill cranes have been tried as foster parents for whooping cranes in reintroduction schemes. This failed when the whooping cranes imprinted on their foster parents, later did not recognize other whooping cranes as their conspecifics, and unsuccessfully tried to pair with sandhill cranes instead.
Sandhill cranes occasionally reach Europe as vagrants. The first British record was on Fair Isle in April 1981, and the second was in Shetland in 1991. Small groups of sandhill cranes were seen in parts of eastern China.
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