Introducing Australian & New Guinea cranes

Australia has two cranes, the Brolga Antigone rubicunda and rarer Sarus Crane Antigone antigone. The Brolga is New Guinea's only crane, living in the Trans-Fly lowlands of Papua New Guinea and Papua, Indonesia. Although Brolgas have occasionally been recorded in the Torres Strait, there is no known regular migration or interbreeding between New Guinea and Australian Brolgas.

There are five different populations of Sarus Crane: South Asian (India and Nepal: Antigone a. a.); SE Asian (A. a. sharpii); Australian (A. a. gillae); Philippines (A. a. luzonica, Extinct); and Burmese (not yet named). Until 2020, all forms were regarded as clinal (varying gradually across the range) but a new genetic analysis» supports Australian Sarus as a separate subspecies. Earlier genetic studies indicate it's more than 30,000 years since Australian Sarus Cranes interbred with Sarus from SE Asia. There is no known migration of Australian Sarus outside northern Australia and no evidence of Sarus Cranes occurring in New Guinea.

Based on plumage, measurements and unison calls, Brolgas and Sarus Cranes were long assumed to be each other's closest relatives. Genetic studies show that both are closely related to the White-naped Crane Antigone vipio, but differ as to whether Sarus Crane is closer to Brolga, or White-naped. Sandhill Cranes are also a more remote part of this group amongst the cranes.


Comparing Brolgas and Sarus Cranes

Both are tall, elegant, slow-moving grey birds with long legs and bill and a broad wingspan. Their distinctive calls are known as trumpeting or bugling. Sarus Cranes are slightly larger (though slightly lighter in weight), and appear greyer with extensive red on the head and neck. Sarus legs are pink to reddish. Brolgas appear paler grey, have much less red on the head, blackish legs and a dark pouch or dewlap bulging under the throat.

Brolga Sarus Crane Young Brolga Young Sarus Crane

From left: (1) Adult Brolga in ploughed field, Nth Queensland. Red bare skin only around the eyeline, blackish legs, pale grey plumage and dark dewlap under the throat (Ian Montgomery); (2) Adult Sarus Crane in ploughed field, Atherton Tableland (Sandy Carroll). Slightly larger than Brolga with red bare skin (cinnamon in young) on head and neck, NO dark pouch under throat, pinkish legs, darker grey plumage; (3) Young Brolga, Gulf of Carpentaria (P Merritt); (4) Young Sarus in hayfield, Atherton Tableland (Sandy Carroll)

Brolga & Sarus Crane: measurements

BrolgaSarus
HEIGHT 1.4m to 1.5m
WINGSPAN 1.7m-2.4m to 2.5m
WEIGHT 3.7kg-8.7kg 5kg-8.4kg
BILL 14.8cm-16.6cm to 16.6cm

Males are slightly larger than females. Brolga weights & bills from field measurements: JG Blackman (1971) Sex determination of Australian cranes (Gruidae), Qld J Ag Sci 28: 281-286. Other figures from HANZAB2

Calls

Sarus trachea

Cranes enhance the volume of their calls with a coiled trachea that resonates in the sternum. The image is from Edward Blyth (1881) The Natural History of the Cranes: the bird was an adult male (Indian) Sarus that died in the London Zoo.

To read about types of crane calls and crane behaviour, and play recordings, visit Ozcranes Brolga and Sarus Crane calls page».

On other sites: Brolga making single calls while walking through swamp; Indian Sarus unison call at the nest (YouTube).

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Distribution & numbers

View large size range maps» for Brolgas, Australan Sarus Crane and Sarus Cranes in Asia (2019), courtesy International Crane Foundation.

Brolga

From left: (1) Brolga distribution, Australia; (2) Breeding records, Australia; (3) New Guinea distribution (grey) and breeding (black). (1) & (2) from Atlas 2; (3) from HANZAB2 (courtesy BirdLife Australia)

Brolga Brolga breeding Brolga PNG

DistributionNorthern and eastern Australia, except Tasmania. In New Guinea, southern central lowlands of PNG and Papua Province, Indonesia, but there is almost no information about the New Guinea population. Sometimes seen flying on islands in the Torres Strait but no known migration or interbreeding between Australian and New Guinea Brolgas. Brolga photographs from Wasur National Park, West Papua, Indonesia: one Brolga in 1991 and a small flock of four in 2007 (Macaulay Library). For more on New Guinea Brolgas and a new project to study possible migration, see Ozcranes New Guinea Brolgas page».

In Australia, nesting is only well-documented in the Riverina and SW Victoria/ SE South Australia districts, where Brolgas are threatened and intensive nest searches are done. Nest searches in the tropical north are difficult due to flooding seasonal rains. Recent studies have documented breeding success in several catchments in the Gulf Plains region, NW Queensland: Sympatric cranes in northern Australia: abundance, breeding success, habitat preference and diet (abstract available at the link). Brolgas are no longer listed as an occasional vagrant to New Zealand, as the identification of cranes recorded there is now considered uncertain, see Ozcranes page on vagrant cranes in New Zealand».

NumbersBrolgas in Australia number at least 50,000 and possibly up to 100,000, but there are no figures for New Guinea. More in Brolga FAQ 1».

Sarus Crane

Australian Sarus Crane distribution, courtesy International Crane Foundation

Sarus AU range map

DistributionAustralian Sarus Cranes are mostly concentrated as shown, in far north Queensland and the far NE of the Northern Territory. Occasional records occur S of the area shown, and across the Top End. Sarus also occur in south Asia (India and Nepal) and SE Asia. There is no evidence of Sarus migration between other regions and Australia. Breeding is only documented in the Gulf Plains, far NW Queensland, extending partway up the western coast of Cape York Peninsula. Breeding is not confirmed on eastern Cape York.

NumbersThe number of Australian Sarus Cranes is uncertain. The only reliable estimates are about 826-3255 individuals in Atherton Tablelands flocks in the non-breeding season (see Crane Count results in Ozcranes Research»). It's unknown what proportion of Australian Sarus winter on the Tablelands and most may remain all year in the Gulf, where only a few incidental counts are done. More in Sarus FAQ 1»

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Habitats, wetlands and people

Habitats

Brolgas and Sarus Cranes are wetland birds, needing water every day to drink and bathe. They breed as isolated pairs in swamps, dams and floodplains in the rainy season (summer in N Australia and New Guinea, winter-spring in S Australia). The dry non-breeding period is known as the ‘flocking’ season, when (at least for a significant part of the population) pairs and their (one or two) young join many others in feeding and roosting flocks. In N Australia, flocks can contain both species, usually with one predominating. There are many unknowns around why one species predominates in some areas, differences in preferred nesting habitat, and the extent of competition and interbreeding in the wild. More on habitat differences in Sarus Crane FAQ 3» and on competition/ interbreeding in Ozcranes Research.

Many significant crane sites are modified or artificial wetlands, created by pastoralists for stock watering (E Duignan, Upper Herbert, N Qld)

large farm dam

Conservation

Worldwide, cranes rely on wetland health and a good relationship with people to survive. With some exceptions, there are a lot of positives in Australia. Brolgas and Sarus Cranes are widely respected across the pastoral rangelands or farmlands where they nest, and later feed and roost in flocks. The birds keep coming back, implying many properties are managed positively for Brolgas and Sarus Cranes. For more on habitat and conservation, continue on to Ozcrane Brolga and Sarus Crane FAQs, and check Ozcranes Conservation» pages. In the FAQs, Brolga conservation is covered in Brolga FAQ 4» and for Sarus Cranes, see Sarus FAQ 4».

Practices that achieve crane-friendly land management, and relevant research, will be regularly featured on Ozcranes. We welcome contributions from landholders, catchment groups and others with experience in managing wetlands and other habitats for production and cranes.

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Brolga FAQ1 »

Sarus Crane FAQ1 »


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