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Why do Sandhills Breed so far North?

May 16, 2001 -

At the NJ State Showcase, Signals was being presented by the Ann Street School (Newark, NJ). A question from the audience of administrators and teachers was: 'Why do SAndhill Crane breed (nest/give birth to their young) so far North in Canada and Siberia? Why don't they just stop and breed in the U.S.?

Dr. Gary Krapu, of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (USGS)(TARA: LINK TO PARTNER PAGE for NPWRC) responds: "I will try to answer the question. First, sandhill cranes breed from Cuba to arctic islands so some do stay in much warmer climates to nest. Lesser Sandhill Cranes which breed in the far north appear to have evolved in the arctic and possess adaptations allowing them to breed successfully there despite the harsh climate.

"During the last ice age, parts of northern Alaska and northeastern Russia were not covered by ice and thus cranes were able to survive when vast areas were covered with thick ice sheets. Lesser Sandhills are much smaller than Greaters which nest in temperate regions so require much less energy to survive in the cooler and probably less productive environment.

"Small body size also allows the young to fly earlier which is important because winter comes much earlier the arctic and any bird that can't fly before freezing conditions arrive is "toast" so to speak. Cranes, like many other species of birds home back to the same areas where they were hatched.

"We don't understand the mechanisms well that allow birds to find their way back home but in some cases it probably is learned and in others it likely is hardwired into their genetic makeup."

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