Cranes are wading birds, species of which live on five continents. The whooping crane is probably the most famous species in Louisiana, but the sandhill crane is more prevalent in North Louisiana– which isn’t saying much. Like black bears and mountain lions, cranes almost disappeared from the state. Coastal birds, whooping cranes were completely wiped out in the state in 1950, but have been successfully reintroduced in South Louisiana, especially at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area.
Because they are coastal birds, whooping cranes do not live in North Louisiana. Sandhill cranes, which are similar to whooping cranes except in color (whooping cranes are white; sandhill cranes are grey), do occur in North Louisiana, albeit in small numbers. The International Crane Foundation estimates roughly 650,000 sandhill cranes around the world. However, as the subspecies found here, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane is endangered, far fewer are in our neck of the woods.
Cranes nest on the ground near water. In the summer and spring, they tend to hunt alone, but in the late fall and winter, when they are most commonly found in North Louisiana, they roost and feed in flocks.
Cranes are related to herons and are sometimes confused with the great blue heron, especially since both birds hunt on or near water. The birds have a similar body shape. The blue heron, however is covered in blue feathers and lacks the red marking on the head that the sandhill crane has. As omnivores, sandhill cranes have a diverse diet, hunting small animals in the water and on land and eating plants, seeds, grains, berries, and insects. They will travel to nearby agricultural areas to forage and will destroy entire fields of crops during feeding. However, despite their love of waterfront properties, sandhill cranes do not eat fish and rarely hunt over open water.
Cranes dance for the same reasons that mammals play: to develop social and defensive skills. They communicate through body language, and can show a range of emotions through movement including aggression, submission, and courtship. Cranes respond to aerial predators by leaping into the air and kicking their feet forward. They respond to terrestrial predators by spreading their wings wide and hissing. Sandhill cranes mate for life, choosing their partners based on the mating dance.
Sandhill Cranes in the News The International Crane Foundation notes that the sandhill crane may be the oldest known bird species. A fossil, identified as belonging to a sandhill crane was found in Nebraska from the Pliocene period (5.3 – 2.6 million years ago).
To learn more about Louisiana's reintroduction of the whooping crane, check out the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' site.The International Crane Foundation is an invaluable source to learn more about both sandhill and whooping cranes.
Where to Find North Louisiana Cranes
Sandhill cranes, like whooping cranes, are extremely rare in Louisiana, and are difficult to find in the wild. Also like whooping cranes, sandhill cranes live in wetlands, and North Louisiana’s sparse sandhill populations are located near lakes and rivers. If you find one, it will be near water. The only place I’ve ever seen one in the wild was at the Russell-Sage Wildlife Management Area during a winter cold snap: The temperature was a blistering 19 degrees.