Threatened sandhill cranes are dying on Florida roads. Here’s how the public can help save them

Threatened sandhill cranes are getting killed on Florida roadways

Threatened Florida sandhill cranes are increasingly being hit and killed by cars as their natural habitat is lost to development. The problem gets worse in the spring when cranes teach their flightless young how to forage.
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Threatened Florida sandhill cranes are increasingly being hit and killed by cars as their natural habitat is lost to development. The problem gets worse in the spring when cranes teach their flightless young how to forage.

They grow to nearly 4 feet tall, with soft gray plumage and heads capped with crimson crowns.

Their call is a melodious bugle.

They run, swim, fly and leap. The birds even dance, when the mood strikes.

It’s hard not to notice the sandhill crane.

Despite this fact, an increasing number of the threatened birds are being hit and killed on Florida roadways.

It happens at feeding time, when the cranes slow to a leisurely stroll.

The leggy fowl are a sight to see as they wander through the suburbs, seeking out the best patches of grass to forage for roots, tubers, earthworms, mole crickets, grubs and other subterranean delicacies.

Adult cranes are usually spotted in pairs; they mate for life. In the months of April through June, fuzzy golden chicks trail close behind.

Unfazed by the other two-legged creatures with whom they share the sidewalk, the parents stay focused on foraging — a skill they are teaching to their flightless babies.

A sandhill crane chick stays close to its parent as they feed along a lake Tuesday near Creekwood Boulevard, just north of State Road 70 in East Manatee. Bradenton Herald File Photo

With a deft swoop, beak breaks soil and up comes dinner, still wriggling.

Unfortunately for the Florida sandhill crane, the best pickings these days are often found curbside.

The flatlands that the birds would naturally roam are giving way to thoroughfares and new homes.

Now they are forced to linger in gutters and cross streets to find food as cars rip past.

It is often a fatal mix.

A sandhill crane that was radio-tagged by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission researchers was later found dead after it was struck by a car. Courtesy of Tim Dellinger/FWC

Tim Dellinger is an assistant research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; his job is studying Florida sandhill cranes.

Lately, that means figuring out how the subspecies is adapting to life in such close quarters with humans.

Dellinger and other researchers are spending the spring months in the field, where they are tagging as many cranes as possible with radio collars.

“Sometimes we can walk right up and grab them,” Dellinger says.

That’s how comfortable the birds have become with people.

Other, wilder birds require more wrangling, but all of them wind up with a tracking device around one leg.

The cellular transmitter pings about every 30 minutes, relaying the bird’s movements and locations to researchers via Google Earth.

Another, more economical option for tagging birds is with simple colored bands. The public can then report sightings of the banded birds via email to help scientists gather information.

The aim of the project is to track how cranes are using urban, suburban and conservation lands as their natural habitat shrinks.

Dellinger says Florida sandhill crane populations are on the rise, but that could change if habitat infringement and roadkill deaths continue.

“Privately owned preferred crane habitat is being lost, so cranes are moving into suburban and urban areas, airports, residential subdivisions and golf courses,” Dellinger said. “We want to know how they are surviving and raising young among us.”

“The data we’re getting so far blows my mind. It’s still early in the project, but we can see how cranes are moving in and between developed and wild habitats in search of open areas for food and nesting.”

The number, placement and color of bands on a tagged sandhill crane helps researchers distinguish between individuals. Courtesy of Tim Dellinger/FWC

In the fall, Dellinger and other researchers will conduct a manual count of sandhill crane populations on public and private lands including prairies, grasslands, pastures, freshwater marshes and swamps. The annual survey allows them keep an eye on regional populations and test new ways of monitoring the birds.

FWC’s crane tracking project is currently focused in Central Florida, but Dellinger says he would like to expand research efforts to more areas of the state soon — especially those that are in early stages of development.

In Manatee County, the battle is already waging.

Residents of the Harrison Ranch subdivison in Parrish say that five sandhill cranes have been killed in recent weeks, including two chicks.

Construction of the community began in 2006 and was completed in 2016; it was built around hundreds of acres of natural wetlands and ponds.

And more development is on the way to Parrish. Nearly 6,000 new homes and 5 million square feet of retail and office space are currently planned for the unincorporated community.

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Sandhill cranes crossing a street in Mill Creek. Provided photo

A couple of hours before sunset on a Thursday, Justin Matthews of Matthews Wildlife Rescue pulls his truck onto the median of Harrison Ranch Boulevard.

It’s when the cranes regularly cross the busy road to feed.

Matthews is there to help them do it safely; he says he doesn’t want to see any more die.

Matthews has found the birds after they were hit by cars on several occasions.

Recently, one died just as he got it to an animal hospital. He brought the body back so that the widowed mate could mourn its dead partner.

“Something I always do when a crane dies is I take it back out there to let the mate have closure,” Matthews said. “They go up to it and they flap their wings and start squawking and bouncing around the dead body, like they’re really sad. They do that for a couple hours normally, and then they finally leave and I can remove the body. It’s really amazing how much they care about each other.”

When Matthews can tell that the cranes are getting ready to cross at Harrison Ranch, he follows them into the street, stretching his arms wide like wings to hurry them along. It also helps get the attention of oncoming traffic.

Several residents of the subdivision also come out to watch over the cranes.

Leslie Marchand, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years, motions at approaching cars to slow down near the feeding birds.

The speed limit is 35 mph; Marchand counts four cars in a row that seem to be going well over it.

Many drivers do slow down, and a few even stop to ask what’s going on. They are appreciative when they find out that someone is watching out for the wildlife.

“They need to know these animals are protected,” Marchand said. “And I think we need more signs and speed bumps and to let people know that we enforce the speed limit.”

Matthews is working with Manatee County code enforcement to have some form of traffic control installed. For now, he has placed homemade signs along the road that read “Caution: sandhill cranes crossing.”

“People need to accept the fact that we have to coexist with wildlife, especially because of all the land we’re destroying,” Matthews said. “Let’s all be good people. Let’s watch out for the innocent ones.”

As Florida’s population boom proceeds and development eats up more of the sandhill crane’s natural habitat, the birds’ encounters with cars will only become more frequent, FWC predicts.

Dellinger says that information gleaned from the ongoing studies may lead to new solutions for preventing crane deaths.

For now, traffic controls such as speed bumps, wildlife crossing signs and radar speed signs in areas where cranes roost are the easiest fixes.

Sandhill cranes prefer to forage in vegetation less than 20 inches tall, so alternatives to short cut grass, like hedges or gravel, could also deter them from feeding near roadways.

A pair of sandhill crane chicks plays together as they feed along a lake near Creekwood Boulevard, just north of State Road 70 in East Manatee. Bradenton Herald File Photo

Dellinger stresses that drivers should always slow down where cranes are known to be present — especially between April and June when the birds are raising their chicks.

“Sandhill chicks don’t take their first flight until eight to 10 weeks old, so the parents are walking the colts between uplands and wetlands,” Dellinger said. “They’re more vulnerable with young.”

To the seasoned bird expert, whose career also includes studying songbirds and raptors, sandhill cranes are a unique bird worthy of admiring and protecting.

“I get caught up in the job sometimes and I take it for granted just how beautiful these birds are. It’s amazing to just stop and watch them sometimes.”

Florida sandhill cranes are a non-migratory subspecies, so their beauty can be enjoyed year-round.

Two sandhill crane chicks stay close to a parent in a nest tucked in the greenery of a pond in the area of Creekwood Boulevard, just north of State Road 70 in East Manatee. Bradenton Herald File Photo

Here are some tips for co-existing with cranes from FWC and wildlife experts:

Don’t speed and be aware of your surroundings while driving where cranes are present — especially during nesting season February to June.

Don’t feed sandhill cranes. ”It only encourages bad behavior and often does not end well for the cranes,” Dellinger said. It’s also illegal.

Avoid pesticide use on lawns where cranes are present. Young sandhill cranes have died from pesticide poisoning, according to FWC.

Properly dispose of monofilament fishing line. “I see way too many birds that are injured or missing a foot due to discarded fishing line,” Dellinger said.

Report color banded crane sightings to cranes@myfwc.com. Include band color information, location, time and a photo if possible.

Don’t be upset if you see a crane digging in the yard; they remove common turf pests.

Cranes may attack shiny surfaces like car windows and glass doors. Prevent it by covering them.

If you come across an injured sandhill crane, contact a local wildlife rescue.

Ryan Ballogg covers arts, entertainment, dining, breaking and local news for the Bradenton Herald. He won first place for feature writing in the Florida Press Club’s 2018 Excellence in Journalism Competition. Ryan is a Florida native and graduated from University of South Florida St. Petersburg.