In short, the answer is the Sandhill Crane. This tall, majestic migratory bird has only fairly recently taken up residence in the state of Pennsylvania, but its population is on the rise.
These majestic birds are an almost otherworldly sight when viewed during their migration period, where sometimes thousands of cranes can be seen flying or roosting together.
Read on to learn more information about these incredible birds of Pennsylvania.
How to Identify the Sandhill Crane
Standing at around 4 feet tall and sporting a wingspan that can reach up to 7 feet in length, these large birds are difficult to miss.
If you’re still not convinced, Sandhill Cranes have distinct gray or sandy-colored feathers and a bright red cap on the top of their heads.
They also display physiological features that are similar to other types of cranes, such as their snake-like neck, spindly walking-stick legs, and lack of a definable tail.
They can most often be spotted in flat, open areas, either in pairs or in groups of sometimes even hundreds of other cranes. Their call, also, can be heard for miles away, and is said to resemble a trumpet or bugle.
Sandhill Crane Habitat
Although they are known to take up residence on dry land in open fields and farmlands, these birds tend to prefer the damp bogs and marshes of northwest Pennsylvania, where they are able to find most of their food.
They gravitate toward small bogs, marshes, and prairies, roosting overnight on the shallow water of ponds and rivers, and spending the day foraging for food in nearby croplands and wetland areas.
They are migratory birds and will typically overwinter in Mexico and the southern United States, and are really only observed in large numbers in Pennsylvania during the fall months, which is during their migratory period.
However, some cranes will still choose to overwinter in Pennsylvania. They prefer smaller areas, but may take up residence on the edges of a larger bog.
In the winter, when migrating, family groups will band together into flocks of sometimes tens of thousands.
As Sandhill Cranes find their home in wetland and grassland areas, the majority of their diet consists of seeds, water-dwelling plants, and cultivated grains.
However, they are omnivores, and will also not hesitate to consume insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, or even other birds.
While dwelling in bog-like areas, Sandhill Cranes may scoop water plants and tubers out of the shallow water for sustenance.
They may also forage in nearby farmlands, consuming any seeds, grains, and berries they can find on the property.
They are also willing to eat just about anything, and populations in other states have had issues with Sandhill Cranes becoming too accustomed to humans after being hand-fed by passing strangers. In many places, feeding these birds is illegal.
Sandhill Cranes make excellent parents – and it’s easy to see why. Typically choosing to settle down at around 2-7 years of age, Sandhill Cranes find their mates by participating in a complex mating ritual, where they perform elaborate dancing displays that include leaping, bowing, displaying their feathers, and pumping their heads.
Once a couple has decided to “go steady,” they are in it for the long haul: Sandhill Cranes mate for life. And that’s no easy feat, either.
When uninterrupted by human interference, Sandhill Cranes can live to be 20 years old or more, with the oldest living crane on record being 36 years old.
Additionally, mates return to the same nesting grounds annually, and will stay with their partner throughout the year, even during migration and nesting periods.
If one of the pair dies, the other may choose to move on into a new relationship, but will still typically stay with their original nesting grounds.
Sandhill Cranes nest on the ground, and may choose to build their nests from surrounding vegetation either on solid ground or, if possible, in shallow water.
They only lay two eggs per year, and unfortunately, only one of those eggs usually survives to fledging. These cranes are very attentive to their chicks, and are unlikely to abandon them even while in danger themselves.
The babies tend to stay with their parents for 9-10 months after hatching, eventually leaving the nest in the spring. They are strong from birth, and can walk, leave the nest, and even swim within 8 hours of hatching.
The Future of Sandhill Cranes
So, why is it important to understand Sandhill Cranes? The answer is simple: to ensure this incredible, caring bird does not die out.
The survival of the Sandhill Crane is directly tied to the conservation of their habitat: the American wetlands. Currently, Sandhill Crane species are increasing in Pennsylvania.
But this is not the case everywhere. One of the sub-species of the Sandhill Crane, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane, is currently facing endangerment as the Mississippi wetlands are converted into pine tree farms.
Because they typically only have one surviving chick per year, the loss of a few acres of land could significantly impact the entire population. We must protect Pennsylvania wetlands if we are to also protect this magnificent bird.