The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is believed to be among the oldest of living species, having existed in much its current form for perhaps the past ten million years. Found through wet prairie regions across North America, these long-legged, long-necked birds of wet grassy prairies are distinguished by their overall gray plumage with rust accents and prominent fleshy red foreheads. Birds from northern populations migrate and can stand nearly four feet tall; those from southern populations are resident and about three and a half feet tall.
Known as a breeding bird in Mississippi since at least 1929, the Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla) was designated as a subspecies (in this case, a unique geographic variant) in 1972. At that time it was noted that although its plumage was slightly darker, differences between the Mississippi sandhill cranes and Florida populations were minimal, and the naming of the Mississippi population as a unique form would likely serve primarily as an avenue for including it on endangered species lists. The Mississippi crane population had been listed as “rare” in the 1968 list of Rare and Endangered Wildlife of the United States, and in 1973 it was included on the official US list of endangered species. On 25 November 1975 more than sixteen thousand acres were set aside as the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge to protect the birds. It was the first national wildlife refuge established under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Mississippi sandhill cranes are primarily found in Jackson County. Other resident populations of sandhill cranes occur in Florida and previously occurred in Alabama. Ancestors of these southern birds were almost certainly found in wet grassy prairies across the Lower Gulf Coastal Plain from Florida to East Texas. Overhunting and human alteration of habitats diminished and fragmented the ancestral population, and the Mississippi sandhill crane is today the smallest of the relict descendant populations. During the 1970s what became known as the “cranes and lanes” controversy defined both the primary cause of the endangerment of Mississippi sandhill cranes (habitat loss) and perhaps their salvation. It was feared that construction of Interstate 10 through Jackson County would result in the extinction of the population. The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge and a reduced number of interstate exits in the crane habitat provided concessions and hope for the birds.
In 1965 cranes from the Mississippi sandhill crane population had been taken into captivity to begin a captive breeding program at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel, Maryland. By the early 1980s fewer than thirty Mississippi sandhill cranes remained in the wild, and annual mortality was higher than annual productivity. Since 1981, captive-bred cranes have been annually introduced to the population, and by 1992 it was estimated that 75 to 80 percent of the Mississippi sandhill cranes in the wild in Mississippi had been hatched in captivity. As of January 2016, 129 Mississippi sandhill cranes remained in the wild.
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge provides only part of the habitat needed and used by the birds. From mid-fall to early midwinter each year, Mississippi sandhill cranes gather to feed and roost in the Pascagoula River marsh and nearby fallow agricultural fields or pastures. Sandhill cranes from migrant populations also winter on the Gulf Coast but are easily distinguished from their small, slightly darker resident relatives.
- J. W. Aldrich, “A New Subspecies of Sandhill Crane from Mississippi,” in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (1972)
- D. H. Ellis, G. F. Gee, S. G. Hereford, G. H. Olsen, T. D. Chisolm, J. M. Nicolich, K. A. Sullivan, N. J. Thomas, M. Nagendran, and J. S. Hatfield, The Condor (February 2000)
- Aldo Leopold, “Report on a Game Survey of Mississippi Submitted to the Game Restoration Committee, Sporting Arms, and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute,” unpublished manuscript, Mississippi Museum of Natural Science Library (1929)
- T. C. Tacha, S. A. Nesbitt, and P. A. Vohs, in Birds of North America, ed. A. Poole, P, Stettenheim and F. Gill (1992)
- William H. Turcotte and David L. Watts, Birds of Mississippi (1999)
- US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge website, http://www.fws.gov/refuge/mississippi_sandhill_crane/
- J. M. Valentine Jr. and R. E. Noble, Journal of Wildlife Management (July 1970)