Siberian cranes are critically endangered. Whooping cranes and red-crowned cranes are endangered. Sandhill cranes are making a comeback, but many are relocating to Pennsylvania.
Florida cranes nonchalantly wander neighborhoods and golf courses, while Demoiselles are dying out in Turkey — but number in the hundreds of thousands elsewhere.
From Germany to Japan, India to Uganda, and Florida to Bhutan, cranes and their traditional, threatened habitats are making news.
Ambassadors for Peace
Fifteen species of cranes range freely over five continents and migrate across deserts, mountains, frozen tundra, and the borders of hundreds of nations. The International Crane Foundation (ICF) says cranes “are ambassadors for peace among diverse peoples, who unite in efforts to save the elegant birds, and for the preservation of their fragile wetland and grassland homes and migratory staging grounds.”
“Because of development and habitat loss, many species that once thrived in much broader ranges are now restricted to fragments of protected land in parks, sanctuaries, even demilitarized zones between hostile nations.”
Often mistaken for blue herons or egrets and other waterfowl, cranes range in size from about 3 to 5 feet in height, weighing between 5 and 22 pounds, with wing spans reaching up to 7 feet.
These stately birds have been valued since ancient times with various symbology assigned to them by different cultures ranging from the Hopi and Ojibwa tribes of America, to China and Japan, to the Egyptians, Celts, Greeks and aboriginal Australians. Cave paintings and many different modern art media feature cranes. And today, conservationists study and count them even as hunters and poachers capture or kill.
The Mysterious Sandhills (Grus Canadensis)
According to Joe Kosack, Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, a majority of the sandhill crane’s global population historically has nested throughout Canada. East of the Mississippi River, they predominantly inhabited the Great Lakes in substantial numbers through the 1800s. But they encountered hard times when increased unregulated hunting pressure and habitat loss limited their productivity. By the start of World War II, it was believed there were only several thousand remaining in North America.
Since then, heightened management attention and the bird’s increasing and advantageous use of agricultural areas have helped the sandhill regain its standing in the United States. Today, it is the most abundant crane species in the world, and is expanding its range into Pennsylvania and other states.
“The Great Lakes population went through a historic bottleneck in the 1930s,” says Matt Hayes, an ICF sandhill crane researcher. Hayes explained. “We don’t know what their previous numbers were, but we do know they were reduced to about 300, including 25 to 30 breeding pairs in and around Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.”
But why have the sandhills pushed their bird’s nesting frontier to Pennsylvania and not also Virginia or Maryland, Kosack asks.
“Is it latitude? Climate? Habitat? Surely, they have areas that resemble Pennsylvania’s countryside mix of wetlands, farmlands and fallow fields south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
While the answers aren’t rapidly forthcoming, research continues among the birds and their hard to find nests. Meanwhile, sandhill cranes number at around 650,000 globally.
The Whooping Cranes (Grus Americana)
Standing 5 feet tall, these are the tallest bird in North America. Fossilized remains dating back millions of years indicate these birds have been around a very long time.
Whooping cranes may live up 25 years in the wild and up to 40 years in captivity. In the 1940s, their numbers dwindled to 21 birds in the US, but there are now 384 whooping cranes in North America – approximately 174 in the only migratory flock, which breeds in Canada and winters in Texas; 86 non-migratory birds in central Florida; 120 in captivity, and two in the Rocky Mountains.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) states: Whooping cranes have been hunted, both for their meat and for their feathers. The long beautiful feathers of whooping cranes were fashionable adornments to hats and other clothing. Humans also have robbed crane nests of their eggs because collectors pay high prices for rare eggs.
The Federal Endangered Species and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts and state wildlife laws now protect these great birds, as they are on the verge of extinction.
Many species of cranes live in wetland habitats. The loss of these habitats has created numerous problems in different parts of the world. Wetlands have been drained for agriculture. Oil and gas development and the construction of intercoastal waterways for barge traffic are additional threats.
Other habitat threats stem from tourism, recreation, harassment by people, agricultural fires, poisoning from pesticide-treated grain, and the building of dams.
Public education is vital to preserving the homes and nesting grounds of cranes. As the USGS posts: “Our natural heritage of biological diversity – all of the species of plants and animals – is a precious resource. Our future quality of life depends on how we take care of our natural inheritance.”
Please be mindful when traversing wetland areas so as never to disturb the nests of cranes. And report anyone participating in illegal activities to reduce their numbers.