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Mississippi SuperGraphic

Introduction

The magnificent Mississippi sandhill crane is a unique subspecies of the sandhill crane that can be seen nowhere in the world but in southern Mississippi. It belongs to the rarest and oldest still-living species of bird, and it makes its home among the grassy wet savannas of Gautier, Miss., in Jackson County.


In the 1970s, only 30-40 of the Mississippi cranes were left on Earth. But today, captive breeding has reintroduced these rare cranes to the wild flock that now numbers between 110 and 130, but survives only on the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Gautier, Miss., and neighboring private lands. Still, fewer than a dozen breeding pairs remain today.

The disappearing wetlands of southern Mississippi are taking with them one of America's little known treasures. With one flock remaining, is too late to save this mysterious subspecies of the oldest living bird? 

The sandhill crane species
The sandhill crane stands four feet tall and has an eight-foot wingspan, making it one of the largest native birds in America. These magnificent birds have red crowns with white cheek patches and black legs. Remarkably, they can live to be 15 to 20 years.

The sandhill crane is one of only 15 species of cranes in the world and one of only two types of cranes in North America. The other is the whooping crane. There are six verified subspecies of sandhill cranes which are broken into two types, migratory and nonmigratory. The lesser, greater and Canadian sandhill cranes are migratory. The threatened Florida sandhill, endangered Mississippi and Cuban sandhill cranes are nonmigratory.

Ninety-nine percent of sandhill cranes are migratory. The greater sandhill crane is found in the Great Lakes region and the Far West. Considered at one time to be endangered, their numbers now continue to rise. The lesser and Canadian sandhills make up the majority of sandhill cranes in North America. They migrate to Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California and Mexico for the winter. Canadian cranes then venture to nesting grounds in central and western Canada during the warmer parts of the year, while the lesser cranes prefer to nest in the Arctic, Alaska and Siberia. 

As for the three nonmigratory species, the Florida sandhills can be seen across southern Georgia and northern and central Florida, and are doing fine. However, the Cuban and Mississippi sandhill cranes are endangered. Cuban sandhills are restricted to the Isle of Pines. The future does not look bright for these two subspecies.

Sandhill cranes are primarily birds of open freshwater wetlands, shallow marshes, wet meadows and adjacent uplands. They utilize a broad range of habitat types, from bogs, sedge meadows and fens to open grasslands, stubble fields and savannas, and cultivated lands. They are omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of plant materials, including waste grain, invertebrates and small vertebrates as well as berries, nuts and fruits, both on land and in shallow wetlands. In the spring and summer they eat insects, worms, crustaceans and other invertebrates that exist on their native habitat.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating behaviors of these peculiar birds is their mysterious tribal dances. Onlookers are stunned by the bird's ability to dance, often in sync as a group. This dance is begun by a single crane which is gradually joined by the rest of the flock. They dip their necks down in a wave-like motion, jump around spreading their feathers and use their long beaks to toss sticks in the air. Cranes also perform many interesting threat displays and other ritualized postures.

Because of these behaviors, their stately beauty and their haunting calls, cranes are featured in the folklore of many cultures. They are symbols of a happy marriage and long life in the Far East.

The graphic Oldest bird in the world