Rambling around Florida with my family as a kid, it was a rare thing indeed to see a pair of sandhill cranes. Today, thanks in no small part to habitat conservation efforts in Central Florida, they’re ubiquitous. Many of our cranes are migratory guests, but large numbers browse the open prairies and pine savannas year-round. Not a week goes by where we don’t see a pair or two – and sometimes dozens – in the St. Johns River basin that surrounds our home.
While visiting Mississippi last fall, we discovered active sandhill crane conservation in progress at the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Gautier.
Bisected by Interstate 10, this 19,300-acre refuge protects one of Mississippi’s most threatened habitats, the wet pine savanna, for the sake of the Mississippi sandhill crane, one of six sandhill crane subspecies. They have darker gray plumage than most sandhill species, making their white cheek patch stand out more. And like the endemic Florida sandhill crane, these cranes don’t migrate.
“They don’t like to travel far,” said Scott Hereford, wildlife biologist for the refuge. Which is why we saw our first pair in the median of Interstate 10. The interstate helped prompt the establishment of the refuge in 1975. Less than 35 cranes remained at the time, and this was the only place they could be found. I-10 was about to slice right through it. Lands were added to the refuge to mitigate the incursion.
The crane’s original range is thought to have extended to Florida’s Panhandle and into Louisiana. But after World War II, the wholesale conversion of wet pine flatwoods to commercial pine plantations across the entire Gulf Coast destroyed their prime ecosystem. Add in decades of population growth, and the fragile wet pine savanna habitats that support these birds and a bevy of bog wildflowers have suffered. Along with the Florida sandhill crane, they were listed as rare in 1968 and placed on the endangered species list in 1973.
Sandhill cranes mature slowly, taking up to eight years to reach adulthood. They are monogamous, so when they lose a mate, it may signal the end of their breeding. Breeding is not always successful every season. They nest on the ground, as they cannot roost in trees. All of these factors mean a very slow growth in their population and extreme fragility to the loss of a member of their species.
The longest and largest re-introduction of cranes in the world started in 1975, with the refuge partnering with other organizations concerned with species survival. One of their most important partners was the International Crane Foundation. Chicks raised by hand risk imprinting humans as their parents, so the partner organizations use the techniques pioneered by the International Crane Foundation. If a chick can’t be placed with foster parents, all human interaction is with costumed caretakers wearing a crane head puppet, with model birds placed between pens for the chicks to understand that they are cranes.
Once the chicks are old enough to fly – between two and three months old, they are known as “colts” – they are transported to the refuge and placed in open-roofed pens in a natural habitat of lily-dotted marshes fringed with cypress trees. Along the rim of the savanna, the enclosures include a roost area where the cranes can sleep standing up in the shallows. The cranes spend at least a month of acclamation with wing restraints. Although fellow cranes can visit and socialize, predators are kept out by the electrified fences.
“We started releasing chicks into these pens in 1981,” said Hereford, “up to eight at a time. We’ve released over 400 of them since then.”
There are now 25 breeding pairs of Mississippi sandhill cranes, and a population of 110 that stay mostly close to home in the savannas of the refuge. Occasionally, motorists will see a pair in the median of I-10. “We wish they wouldn’t go there,” said the staffer at the visitor center, “but they just don’t read the signs!”
These sandhill cranes can live up to 30 years in the wild. For the safety of the species survival – as a single hurricane could devestate the concentrated population in Mississippi – there are captive flocks kept at the at the Audubon Species Survival Center near New Orleans and the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida.
October through March is the best time to see the cranes at the refuge, which offers birding tours during those months. Two nature trails let you roam through the extensive pine savannas. The refuge is just north of Interstate 10 at Exit 61 in Gautier. Although visitor center hours are limited to Tue-Sat 9-3, the refuge is open sunrise to sunset daily except during closures for prescribed burns