Saving the Mississippi Sandhill Crane: Rarest Bird in North America

By Connie Raley

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The 1970s saw the expansion of the Interstate 10 freeway system across South Mississippi. The promise of greater ease in travel brought with it a great controversy. The freeway was being built right through the home of the sandhill crane in Jackson County. Jacob M. (Jake) Valentine, Jr. was assigned to investigate the effects on this population.


Jake realized the severe decline on the crane’s habitat, the wet pine savanna, and called for a refuge. There were only 30-35 of this rare bird left in the wild. The case went all the way to federal court and eventually led to the creation of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. In 1973, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the Mississippi sandhill crane to the endangered species list and Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR was the first refuge established under the Endangered Species Act. 

The wet pine savanna used to cover a stretch from Louisiana to Florida. Now, the savanna ecosystem itself is endangered. The refuge is 19,000 acres in size, has grown since its inception. However, this is less than 5% of the original savanna habitat that covered these lands. In order to manage the existence and increase the population of the cranes, the wildlife rangers must manage the health of the habitat.


Our region receives a large amount of rain each year; combined with the bayous, swamps, and ponds, the hydrology table remains high. This is good for the native plant and wildlife here, as well as the migratory bird population. Too much water, however, produces an overgrowth of vegetation. The soil is drained regularly, and prescribed fires are scheduled in two year intervals. 

Prescribed fires are effective in wildlife management to burn off the fuel, unnecessary brush and pine needles, that could lead to a wildfire. Units of land are burned separately, taking into account wind and weather to protect residences and businesses. Prescribed fire simulates natural fire and burns away dense shrubby vegetation. An open savanna is not only necessary for the herbaceous plants to receive the sun they need, but the dense pine woods are not favorable for the nesting and feeding cranes.


Unlike other familiar large birds in this area, such as the egret and blue heron, the sandhill crane does not have what we would consider being a thumb talon. Though they are great flyers, they will not nest or perch in the trees. Their three forward-facing talons are good solely for walking. Therefore, you will only see them strutting along the ground. Also unlike the other two great birds, the crane forages for food differently. Their beaks penetrate the ground searching for roots and tubers, grubs and insects. They have a similar appearance to the egret and heron, but you will know them by their brightly colored redhead.

Thanks to the landowners in the surrounding area who maintain open fields, farms, and ponds, you may spot a crane outside of the refuge; though they will not venture outside of Jackson County and their savanna. 


Today, there are around 130 cranes on the refuge. The question is often asked, why are there not more? The sandhill crane is a species with a low recruitment rate. They do not produce a lot of young, and when their habitat has been upset, they don’t bounce back as quickly. They are slow to reproduce and have trouble with change. However, in 40 years they have tripled their number. 

Each bird is tracked as an individual and monitored by a radio band. The naturalists keep a stud book to trace the lineages of their birds to help maintain diversity. Cranes only produce about two eggs a year. Often, only one of those will make it to adulthood. Conservation efforts are necessary to help increase the chance for greater survival. 


Some eggs will be taken and placed in a closed part of the refuge where surrogate parents will raise them. This is often the "extra,” or second egg. This will occur in areas where there are more predators, such as bobcats or raccoons. Also, in order to maintain diversity in the flock, lineages that are not as well represented will also be given special care.


Whenever there are not enough bird parents, surrogate humans will raise them wearing a crane costume so that the young do not imprint on the humans. Special breeding facilities in New Orleans and Florida will also be utilized. Rearing chicks in captive flocks give them the competitive edge they need. They will then be transferred back to the refuge for reintroduction. The birds will live in large, open, temporary pens for 30 days to acclimate to the surroundings.

Often other birds will visit the pen and welcome the young to the neighborhood. One such bird is Sir Sticky Buns, named by college interns during their bread-themed naming year. Sticky Buns is a loner, a male, who likes to greet the new recruits. He hasn’t taken a mate but seems to enjoy his role as commander. 


Cranes are territorial and creatures of habit. They tend to hang in the same areas with the same birds, much like clicks in school. They spend a year with their parents, which is rare for birds. They also mate for life. However, one female named Aunt Alice is having trouble with the concept. She is in love with a mated fellow and stays close to him and his female. Maybe she would do better working her magic on Sticky Buns. Only time will tell. 


Though the MS Sandhill Crane NWR is part of the globally important bird area, the refuge is actively managed for the sake of all of its plant and wildlife. Since grasslands around the country are disappearing, one-quarter of the population of Henslow Sparrows in the U.S. winter at the refuge every year. Visitors from all over the country come to view them. Crop Units on the property are pieces of land where crops are grown with food value for the cranes and other species. There are even a rare wild orchid species that grow here for only 15 days after a burn, which means about every two years. Many other native plants are also protected. 


The C. L. Dees trail, named for a local resident who owned a large portion of the land where the refuge was established, is a 3/4 mile long trail that gives visitors the opportunity to explore much native vegetation. Small green markers label the different species of plants along the way. Its greenery changes with the seasons and therefore, so do the foliage markers, allowing the rangers to keep visitors up to date on what is growing, and where, at all times. 


I had the pleasure of a guided tour through parts of the refuge. I was surprised to learn that the diversity in the plant life in the area is second only to the tropical rainforest. I was able to view some unique foliage that I had not been privy to before. There are a few species of carnivorous plants here in south Mississippi. One being the pitcher plant, a tall cylindrical stem that opens its top like a water pitcher. Bugs fly or crawl into the plant following the scent of sweet nectar. The tiny downward hairs allow its entry, and keep it from escaping. Digestive enzymes then go to work turning the lifeforms into food. 


Another such plant is the Sundew. This small groundling plant is no bigger than my thumb and colored a pretty, bright red. It blends in well with the earth and I would have missed it completely had it not been brought to my attention. The Sundew glistens in the sun with a dewy appearance that is actually a sticky substance that attracts and traps tiny organisms to itself, curling up to enclose its prey. 

The trail winds through both open savanna land and areas of tall Longleaf pines. The Longleaf is the original dominant species to the area before the timber industry harvested many of them. It has adapted itself to fire, and the needles coil around the apex of the stem of the plant to protect it from the heat. The needles will singe, but the tree survives. The Slash pine, also native, became dominant after the timber industry reforested the land. Slash pines grow much faster than their Longleaf relatives. You will be able to see both species throughout the refuge.


The MS Sandhill Crane NWR is open to visitors during daylight hours only and is closed on federal holidays and Christmas Eve. Dogs are allowed on the C.L. Dees Trail as long as they are on a leash. Stop by the new Visitors Center for interactive exhibits and pick up helpful information, maps, and brochures for your trail hikes. Although most of the refuge is closed to visitors year-round for conservation purposes, there are plenty of places to visit, including a driving tour that utilizes public streets and surrounding neighborhoods that may offer a glimpse of these endangered creatures. There are also several hundred blinds on the property for viewing the cranes. Free guided tours are offered every Wednesday and Sunday mornings at 8 am during the fall and winter. March is the nesting season and all tours will be on hold through the summer.


December 8, 2018, is this year’s annual Crane Festival from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. There will be educational booths and demonstrations throughout the day, including The Environmental Center’s Raptor Demonstration with birds of prey such as hawks, eagles, and owls; the Audubon Zoo’s Bugmobile with insects from around the world and Hattiesburg Zoo’s reptile display with several species of lizards, turtles, and even an alligator. The center will also host the ever popular dance and song demonstration from the Mississippi Choctaws. And thanks to the acclimation pen and timing of the new captive flock of young cranes, there will be an opportunity to view the Mississippi sandhill crane from right near the visitors center. This event is sure to bring something special for the whole family. 


The desire of those involved with the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is to educate the public on these endangered birds and their habitat that can only be found right here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


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Or call: 228-497-6322