What’s that super loud “Call of the wild” that you just heard? Well, it might just be a Florida Sandhill Crane. They have one of the most distinctive calls of any bird. You’ll hear it more this time of year as cranes from the north come to winter in Florida, much like a lot of our human residents.

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are long-legged, long-necked, large birds. They are gray, heron-like birds with white cheeks and a red patch on top of their head.

They can reach a height of 47.2 inches with a wingspan around 78.7 inches. They fly with their necks stretched out like geese. Young sandhills weigh about twelve pounds, males are larger than females, but external markings are identical.

Three subpopulations of sandhill cranes are migratory. All of these subspecies spend winters in states like Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. In the early spring, they begin the migration to their breeding grounds in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska.

Three subpopulations of sandhill cranes are non-migratory. There are ones that we see, mostly near inland wetlands of Florida. There are also Mississippi sandhill cranes found on the southeastern coast of Mississippi and Cuban sandhill crane living in wetlands, and grasslands in Cuba. Mississippi and Cuban sandhill cranes are critically endangered.

The Florida sandhill crane numbering 4,000 to 5,000, is a non-migratory year-round breeding resident.  They are joined every winter by 25,000 migratory greater sandhill cranes, the larger of the two subspecies. The greater sandhill crane winters in Florida but nests in the Great Lakes region.

Florida sandhill cranes inhabit freshwater marshes, prairies, and pastures.  They occur throughout peninsular Florida north to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia; however, they are less common at the northernmost and southernmost portions of this range.  

Cranes are monogamous. Courtship consists of dancing, which features jumping, running, and wing flapping.  Two eggs are normally laid in nests built by both parents. Eggs incubate for 32 days. Within 24 hours of hatching, the young are able to follow their parents away from the nest. Together, they forage for food. Those babies are quick learners.

Sandhill cranes are opportunistic feeders. They will change their diet based on what’s available. They eat everything from seeds and grain to berries, insects, earthworms, mice, small birds, snakes, lizards, frogs and crayfish. Sandhill cranes don’t “fish” like herons.

In 2002 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission outlawed the feeding of sandhill cranes. Bread, which is usually the go-to food that humans give to birds, is not good for them and more importantly, feeding them can cause them to lose their natural fear of humans which could prove dangerous to them.

The sandhill crane is a close relative to the nearly extinct whooping crane. Cranes live to be older than most birds, some reaching 20 years old.

Like many species, loss of habitat due to wetland drainage or development is the primary threat facing Florida sandhill cranes.  

The Florida sandhill crane is a sensitive bird that doesn’t adjust well to changed environments and growing human populations. The birds are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act and designated as a threatened species.

So if you see a crane walking on those long spindly legs across the road. Slow down and watch for his wife and kids.

Amy Wade-Carotenuto is the Executive Director at Flagler Humane Society and can be reached at acarotenuto@flaglerhumanesociety.org. Flagler Humane Society is a 501(c)(3) not-for- profit organization founded in 1980. For more information go to www.flaglerhumanesociety.org