Introducing Australian & New Guinea cranes

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

The Sarus Crane occurs in India, South-east Asia and Australia. Genetic studies indicate it's more than 30,000 years since Australian Sarus Cranes interbred with Sarus from SE Asia, and there is no known migration of Australian Sarus outside northern Australia.

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, with extensive red on the head and neck, and pink to reddish legs. Brolgas have much less red on the head, blackish legs and a dark pouch or dewlap bulging under the throat.

Brolga Sarus Crane Young Sarus Crane

L: 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).

C & R: Adult Sarus Crane in ploughed field, young Sarus in pasture. Atherton Tableland, far north Qld. Larger than Brolga with red bare skin (cinnamon in young) on head and neck, NO dark pouch under throat, pinkish legs, darker grey plumage (Sandy Carroll).

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Numbers and distribution

Brolgas in Australia number at least 20,000 and up to 100,000, mainly in the north, but there are no figures for New Guinea. The number of Australian Sarus Cranes is also uncertain. Past (unreliable) estimates vary from 5,000 individuals to 5,000 breeding pairs (=10,000 breeding adults plus unpaired and immature birds). Brolgas in southern Australia, mostly cut off from northern populations, are threatened. The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000 includes Sarus Cranes, but the ranking given (‘Least Concern’) is now queried.

Habitats, wetlands and rural production

Brolgas and Sarus Cranes are wetland birds – breeding 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 season 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 conflicting views on which habitats they prefer and whether they compete or interbreed in the wild.

Three Sarus Cranes

← Three Sarus Cranes preparing to land at roost, Atherton Tableland, Far N Qld (David Stowe).

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. 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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