Sarus Crane FAQ 2

This page covers breeding habitat, nesting and development of the young. Features, sub-species, time in Australia and numbers are in FAQ 1, and Sarus food and water are here. An introduction to Brolgas and Sarus Cranes with comparison photos and calls is in Ozcranes Cranes Intro.

Breeding habitat

Australian Sarus Cranes mostly nest in several types of savannah eucalypt woodland, in naturally flooded depressions or small artificial impoundments like cattle dams and borrow pits. Nesting is initiated with rainfall [1].

↓ Sarus nesting territory in borrow pit, Gulf Plains (KS Gopi Sundar)

Gulf swamp Gulf swamp

↑ Sarus Crane nesting wetland, Gulf Plains (John Grant)

Probably many Gulf cranes nest in more remote sites, but many hundreds nest close to roads [1]. Sarus families can be seen foraging along roadsides, crossing roads and are sometimes killed by collisions even on little-frequented Gulf roads [1]. As in India [2], it's possible some breeding territories straddle roads. Breeding Sarus are most common in the Mitchell floodplain, and to a lesser extent the Gilbert floodplain, especially in eucalyptus-dominated woodlands [1] (see maps in Ozcranes Research Gulf breeding project»).

In Asia, most Sarus Cranes breed in cultivated rice, though they prefer natural wetlands if available [3, 4]. Indian Sarus show high nest site fidelity [5], returning year after year to nest in the same place. Offspring also return to nest close to their birthplace, sometimes many years later. in Uttar Pradesh, a 1-month old male Indian Sarus Crane was banded at the nest by KS Gopi Sundar in 2001. Fourteen years later the bird returned, paired and established a nesting territory within 500m of the original nest. In Australia, no Sarus Cranes have been tracked so these factors are unknown.

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Nests and eggs

L: Indian Sarus Crane chick, the second egg is pipping (KS Gopi Sundar). R: Australian Sarus Crane egg (MHNT, Muséum de Toulouse, see Sidebar)

Sarus Crane chick with egg Australian Sarus Crane egg

Apparently – apart from indigenous people – Australian Sarus Crane nests have still only been seen four times since the species was discovered in the Gulf Plains in 1966. In 1969, American crane expert (and dentist) Lawrence Walkinshaw found an active nest near Normanton [8], and in early 1984 scientist Dr George Archibald and his helpers on Morr Morr Station located 34 nests [9]. In February 1996, Gordon Beruldsen (described by author Penny Olsen in ‘Night Parrot: Australia's most elusive bird’ as ‘a well-known Brisbane egg collector’), located two Sarus nests by helicopter, somewhere (not specified) in the Gulf Plains [11]. In 2016, photographer and author David Hollands (with John Young) – after searching many times – found and photographed a Sarus Crane nest, with two eggs (see Reference 12). The Australian Sarus Crane egg (image above) in the Muséum de Toulouse, is from the collection of French ornithologist Jacques Perrin de Brichambaut, but details of its place of origin are unknown. Single eggs in museum collections often result from collectors swapping, or splitting, clutches, and this egg may have been part of a two-egg clutch.

In 2020, Scambler et al. [13] reviewed clutch size in Australian Sarus Cranes, and found records of 45 clutches observed in the wild, including data from private collections. Six had one egg and 39 had two eggs, mean clutch size 1.87. However single-egg nests from the Archibald study in 1984 [9] were not monitored to check for completion of laying or subsequent predation or other losses, so 1.87 probably underestimates mean clutch size. Scambler et al. also reported two instances of Sarus Crane pairs on the Atherton Tablelands with three young, suggesting at least two successful clutches of three eggs (see the paper for discussion on why adoption is unlikely).

Sarus 3 young in India

Sarus Crane pair (preening on left) with three young in India (K.S. Gopi Sundar)

With so few nest records, most knowledge is from seeing pairs with flightless or just-fledged young still on the breeding territory. All records in the Table below are from the Gulf Plains adjacent to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Australian Sarus nesting records

The Table shows published records of nests, eggs, and flightless or just-fledged young 1967-2017. These records are evidence of breeding at the actual place of nesting.

28 APR 1967 [6] 2 pairs each with 2 small flightless young About 25km W of Normanton
8 JAN 1969 [7] 2 half-grown young with 6 adults Near Normanton
26 JAN 1969 [8] Pair with nest, 2 eggs 7 mi. along Croydon Rd from Normanton
JAN-FEB 1984 [9] 34 nests Morr Morr (Delta Downs) Station
10 APR 1985 [10] 1 adult with 2 downy young Magowra Station
FEB 1996 [11] 2 nests with 1 egg each Gulf Plains (no details)
APR 2016 [12] 1 nest with 2 eggs Gulf Plains near Karumba
APR-MAY 2017 [1] 56 Sarus pairs with 1 chick fledged
29 pairs with 2 chicks fledged
Gulf Plains

As with Brolgas, nesting is not colonial. Archibald found that territories were 50-80ha, and nests were a heaped mound of vegetation near or in the water, often in swampy woodland with scattered trees. Brolgas in the same area mostly chose more open sites. Walkinshaw measured the Sarus nest he found near Normanton, diameter was 212 cm, and there were two eggs. One of the nests seen by Beruldsen was in knee-deep water at the base of a tree, the other was in the shade of a tree, also in water. Both the eggs Beruldsen saw were presumed by weight to be ‘partly incubated’, but the incubation period in Austalia is not known. Overseas, Sarus lay 1-4 (usually 2) eggs, 100mm x 62mm, weighing 182-214g; both sexes incubate and hatching is in about 30 days. Chicks leave the nest, swim and start feeding themselves at only 1-2 days old.

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Breeding success

The first formal scientific paper on Australian Sarus breeding success was by John Grant in 2005». He studied recruitment during the dry season on the Atherton Tablelands, counting the number of young that survived to fly with their parents to the wintering grounds. Recruitment rate varied from year to year, the mean 1997-2002 was 6.5%. This study has now covered more than 20 years, see Ozcranes research report Breeding for Success». But the real key to understanding Australian Sarus nesting success had to be on the Gulf Plains breeding grounds.

In April 2004, John began aerial surveys in the Gulf with colleague (and pilot) Rob Heinsohn. They found Sarus and Brolga nesting territories in open floodplains, but far more Sarus breeding sites within woodlands located by ground surveys (see aerial photograph in Sidebar). Flights ended a few years later when the ultralite was sold, but John continued annual ground surveys and in 2012, he recorded density and habitat for breeding Brolgas and Sarus, using roadside surveys» of territorial pairs.

In 2017 this study was scaled up to a multi-catchment program with a team using the roadside survey method. The measure of success in this ongoing study is the annual number of fledged (flying) or almost fledged young located with the parents on their territories [1], and the 2017 survey found a staggering success rate of 60.3%, the highest recorded for Sarus Cranes anywhere. As with wintering cranes on the Tablelands, this rate varies from year to year, and 2017 was exceptional. For more on this project see Ozcranes Research Gulf breeding study».

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Sarus Crane ages

Image by L Shayamal, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence

Most information is from overseas Sarus Crane studies. Both parents brood and guard the young, and give them extra food for several months. It's been assumed that the young (like Brolgas) are fully-feathered at around 14 weeks and can fly soon after, but there are no Australian data. They stay with their parents for up to 11 months until the next breeding season, and develop full head and leg colouring over the next 2-3 years. The stages of maturity for Indian Sarus are in the image below, full size available here. John Grant has recorded similar stages for Australian Sarus, including older immatures in the field. It's assumed pair bonds – mostly long-term – form while birds are still immature, as overseas, with first successful breeding at about five years old.


[1] KSG Gopi Sundar, John DA. Grant, Inka Veltheim, Swati Kittur, Kate Brandis, Michael A. McCarthy and Elinor C. Scambler (2019). Sympatric cranes in northern Australia: abundance, breeding success, habitat preference and diet, Emu-Austral Ornithology, 119:1, 79-89
[2] KSG Sundar personal comm.
[3] Sundar, KS Gopi. ‘Are rice paddies suboptimal breeding habitat for Sarus Cranes in Uttar Pradesh, India?’ The Condor 111, no. 4 (2009): 611-623. Read abstract in Ozcranes Research»
[4] Sundar, KS Gopi, and S. Subramanya. ‘Bird use of rice fields in the Indian subcontinent.’ Waterbirds 33, no. sp1 (2010): 44-70. Read abstract in Ozcranes Research»
[5] A Mukherjee et al. 2000. Nest and eggs of sarus crane (Grus antigone antigone Linn.). Zoos Print Journal 15(12): 375-385.
[6] H B Gill 1969, First record of the Sarus Crane in Australia. Emu 69, 49-52
[7] H B Gill 1971, Further records of Sarus Crane in northern Queensland. Emu 71, 140-1
[8] LH Walkinshaw (1973). Cranes of the world. New York, Winchester.
[9] GW Archibald & SR Swengel (1987). ‘Comparative ecology and behavior of eastern Sarus Cranes and Brolgas in Australia’ Proceedings of the 1985 Crane Workshop, ed. JC Lewis: 107-116. (Download from Ozcranes Downloads»)
[10] Marchant and Higgins 1993, HANZAB Vol 2 (Nest Record Scheme). This was the only Sarus nest record in the Scheme up to the cutoff date for HANZAB 2.
[11] G Beruldsen 1997, Is the Sarus Crane under threat in Australia? Sunbird 27(3): 72-8.
[12] D Hollands 2016, Cranes, Herons and Storka of Australia. Bloomings Books, Melbourne.
[13] Elinor C. Scambler, John DA Grant and N. Glenn Holmes (2020). First observations of Australian Sarus Crane Antigone antigone gillae pairs attending three young and the incidence of three-egg clutches in the Brolga A. rubicunda. Australian Field Ornithology 37: 105-111.

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