Sarus Crane FAQ 3

This page covers Sarus Crane non-breeding habitats, behaviour including interactions with Brolgas, and Brolga-Sarus hybrids. Features, sub-species, time in Australia, numbers and food and water are in FAQ 1 and Sarus food & water. Breeding habitat and nesting are in FAQ 2, and conservation is covered in FAQ 4. The Cranes Intro has background and comparisons for Brolgas and Sarus Cranes.

Habitats – Dry season

Sarus Cranes need water every day and always roost beside or in shallow water at night. In the dry season some Australian Sarus remain in the Gulf Plains or on Cape York Peninsula, living in family groups or small parties near waterholes or swamps. However a significant proportion of the Sarus Crane population migrates some 500 km to spend the dry season on the Atherton Tablelands, where they roost communally, often with Brolgas. Sarus flocks usually leave the roost at dawn to feed in farmland up to 15 km away [1] but may loaf beside water sources during the day. Feeding can continue after nightfall with surveys recording cranes (presumed Sarus on the basis of birds already counted in daylight) arriving at some roosts after dark. Communal roosts are generally free of long vegetation, with shallow edges for bathing and drinking. On the Atherton Tablelands Sarus Cranes have deserted roosts after (and presumably due to): water levels raised in private storages; cattle removed and site overgrown with long grass (tropical pasture species 1-1.8m); tree-planting, including tree crops; and suburban development on a lake shore.

[1] Nevard Timothy D., Franklin Donald C., Leiper Ian, Archibald George, Garnett Stephen T. (2019). Agriculture, brolgas and Australian sarus cranes on the Atherton Tablelands, Australia. Pacific Conservation Biology 25: 377-385.

Atherton Tableland Gulf woodland Wetland

L: View from Hallorans Hill, Atherton. The surrounding ‘golden triangle’ of fertile basalt soil supports maize, peanuts, cattle pasture, sugar cane and avocadoes. On average 1,700 Sarus Cranes feed here during the non-breeding season, and the large water storage (Lake Tinaroo) provides daytime rest sites and night roosts (G & J Holmes). C: Many Sarus Cranes remain in familiy groups or small parties, in the Gulf Plains or on Cape York during the non-breeding season. C: Sarus Crane with cattle, Gulf Plains (K.S. Gopi Sundar). R: Small Cape York wetland (cranesnorth)

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Sarus vs. Brolga habitats and mixed species flocks

Brolgas are adapted to dry habitats provided water exists, even occupying some desert regions as well as higher rainfall areas (see Ozcranes arid land Brolgas» and map in Brolga FAQ 1»). All Australian Sarus Cranes however, live in wet or seasonally wet regions in the northern tropics (see maps in Ozcranes Crane Intro»). Brolgas occur throughout the range of Australian Sarus but based on records so far, seem to use a wider variety of habitats with Sarus found mainly in swamp woodlands, swamps, croplands and grasslands. For differences in feeding habitat on the Atherton Tablelands, see Brolga FAQ 3».

Brolga-Sarus interactions have now been studied in three different ways. In the non-breeding season on the Atherton Tablelands, in feeding flocks (Tim Nevard's PhD study») and at evening wetlands roosts (see North Queensland Crane Counts»). These studies found that the species mingled in fields, and at roosts, but mostly concentrated in different areas of the Tablelands. The Gulf Plains breeding study» recorded differences in breeding habitats and diet. The Crane Count study found that Sarus arrive later at night roosts, possibly related to a different diet (as found in the Gulf Plains) and possibly due to feeding further away from roost sites (as found in T. Nevard's study).

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Videos (Youtube):

↓ Sarus Cranes in threat display, Miranda Downs, Gulf of Carpentaria (K.S. Gopi Sundar). Taken in early evening light. The encounter probably occurred on the territory boundary between two pairs. (1) The pairs ‘face off’, turning their backs on each other. A few moments later (2) the two males (R and L) are in ‘exaggerated walk’ pose and one female (C) is ‘displacement preening’. Both pairs then unison called and the intruding pair flew away.

Sarus Cranes threat Sarus Cranes threat

↓ Sarus Crane family preening, Sarus pair displaying: Atherton Tablelands (Sandy Carroll)

Sarus Crane preening Sarus dancing

Behaviour compared with Brolgas There have been no systematic studies of crane behaviour in Australia, and for Sarus Cranes we even have few observations. Roost behaviour, unison calling, pairbonding and dance displays are believed similar to Brolgas» and other Sarus (see links below). Flight behaviour for both species is covered in Ozcranes Flight Gallery»

Behavioural interactions with Brolgas Height is a significant factor in establishing dominance among cranes. In non-breeding feeding flocks Sarus, being on average slightly taller, may ‘crowd out’ nearby Brolgas, effectively staring them down till they move several metres away. On the other hand, Brolgas are on average heavier than Australian Sarus Cranes (see weights in the Crane Intro» and the evidence for dominance of Sarus Cranes in the wild is equivocal. On the breeding grounds in NW Qld, both species aggressively defend their nest site against nearby Brolgas and Sarus, and also other large birds like swans [2].

To compare Brolga and Sarus Crane calls, with recordings, visit Ozcranes Crane Calls page»

[2] 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 article from Ozcranes Downloads»

Interactions with peopleIn India and Nepal, Sarus Cranes nest mostly in irrigated rice and live in close proximity to people. Very little is known about Sarus-human interactions in Australia, though observers and photographers agree that Sarus seem more wary and prone to flight than Brolgas in similar conditions.

Sarus-Brolga hybrids

Tim Nevard's PhD study has used genetic analysis of blood samples and feathers to demonstrate interbreeding between Brolgas and Sarus Cranes in north Queensland, long suspected by observers after apparent hybrids were first seen (and a specimen collected) by George Archibald in 1972 (see his paper on the ‘Sarolga’, which can be downloaded from Ozcranes Downloads»). For Tim Nevard's recent paper on the genetic study, see The sarolga: conservation implications of genetic and visual evidence for hybridization between the brolga Antigone rubicunda and the Australian sarus crane Antigone antigone gillae – abstract available at the link. For a summary of the results see Ozcranes Sarolga hybrids page».

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Next: Sarus FAQ 4»

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