Sarus Crane FAQ 1

The Sarus Crane Antigone antigone was first officially identified in Australia in 1966, inspiring interesting and differing ideas about their origins, history and ecology. Here in Sarus Crane FAQs Part 1, Ozcranes looks at features, size, location and numbers, and food and water. An introduction to Brolgas and Sarus Cranes including comparison photos and calls, is in Ozcranes Australia/New Guinea Cranes Intro.

Sarus Crane


Male Sarus Crane, Gulf of Carpentaria (P Merritt) →

Sarus Cranes are large, tall and stately with long, pink legs and paler, less grey plumage than the Brolga. The crown is grey, compared with the Brolga's grey-green colouring. Bare red skin extends down the upper part of the neck. There is no dewlap or pouch, but short bristly dark feathers cover part of the throat and round the head. Sarus are taller, but on average weight is slightly less than for Brolga (see Ozcranes Crane Intro page). Male Sarus are slightly larger than females. Like other cranes, Sarus have a raised, reduced hind toe and the long claw of the inner toe is used for fighting. View closeup image of Sarus Crane foot, at a zoo in the Netherlands.

Sarus Cranes have a very wide wingspan, reaching 2.5m. This creates risks from fences and powerlines, see Ozcranes Crane friendly fencing and Crane Hazard pages.

Sarus crane foot, from Edward Blyth (1881) The Natural History of the Cranes.

Sarus foot


↓ Sarus Crane adult and immature with Droughtmaster, a medium to large Australian tropical cattle breed. Atherton Tablelands, far north Queensland (Ian Montgomery)

Sarus Cranes with cattle

There are three living forms of Sarus Crane, but to date there is no genetic evidence for separate sub-species [1]. The South Asian or Indian Sarus is the tallest flying bird in the world, with height to 1.8m. Unlike other forms it has a ‘collar’ of white feathers on the neck, below the very bright red bare skin. Eastern Sarus Cranes are found in South East Asia, now mainly in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. The males are almost as tall as the Indian form, but greyer. Australian Sarus are similar in appearance to those in SE Asia, but smaller and lighter [2]. Genetic studies indicate it's more than 30,000 years [3] since Australian Sarus Cranes interbred with Sarus from SE Asia, and there is no known migration of Australian Sarus outside northern Australia. For more on Sarus outside Australia see Ozcranes Sarus Cranes in Asia» page.

[1] KL Jones et al. (2005). ‘Geographical partitioning of microsatellite variation in the sarus crane’ Animal Conservation 8(1): 1-8
[2] GW Archibald et al. (2003). ‘A review of the three subspecies of sarus cranes Grus antigone.’ Journal of Ecological Society 15: 5-15. This reference can be downloaded free from
[3] TC Wood & C Krajewski (1996). ‘Mitochondrial DNA sequence variation among the subspecies of Sarus Crane (Grus antigone).’ Auk 113: 655-663.

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As outlined in Ozcranes Crane Intro, the number of Australian Sarus is uncertain. The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000 [4] (read or download on Ozcranes), suggests an estimate of 10,000 breeding birds (5,000 pairs), not including immatures and other non-breeding birds. The only known significant non-breeding congregation of Sarus Cranes in Australia is on the Atherton Tablelands, far north Queensland, and nearby hinterland. It's assumed that these birds breed in the Gulf of Carpentaria and migrate southwest for the Dry season, now proven through genetic studies on feathers by Tim Nevard. The only reliable counts are around 1200-3000 in non-breeding flocks on the Atherton Tablelands (E Scambler, annual Crane Counts). This represents an unknown proportion of the total population, and researchers studying the Gulf area (J Grant, T Nevard: see Ozcranes Research) believe most of the Australian population remains in the Gulf year-round. The Gulf Plains has one of the highest crane breeding densities in the world and annual breeding surveys are ongoing [5].

[4] ST Garnett & GM Crowley, Eds. (2000). ‘The Action Plan for Australian birds 2000’. Canberra ACT, Environment Australia
[5] 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

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Like Brolgas, Sarus Cranes are omnivorous, eating many foods. However there are few feeding records for Australian Sarus. Maize seeds, native plants including grasses, grasshoppers and rats have been recorded, and it's been suggested they may feed on plentiful pipis (small molluscs) along the shores of Lake Tinaroo, Atherton Tableland. There are occasional observations of Sarus Cranes stretching up to take ripe maize kernels from the cob on the edges of fields (C Edwards, J Munro: Atherton Tablelands). Studies of Sarus Cranes foraging on the Atherton Tablelands show they feed preferentially on maize stubble, then plough, low-grazed pasture, and occasionally sugar cane trash [6], and (in order of preference) post-harvest grain fields, ploughed land, sown maize and peanuts [7]. On the Gulf breeding grounds, Sarus are more folivorous than Brolgas [5].

[6] Grant, John DA. (2002). Demographic and ecological studies of Sarus Cranes on the Tablelands. Cranes Newsletter 5. BirdLife Northern Queensland, Cairns
[7] 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.

Sarus Crane in hayfield Sarus Crane picking at rice

↑ L: Atherton Tablelands, Sarus Crane hunting invertebrates in hayfield (Sandy Carroll); R: India, Sarus Crane pecking rice grains from the stalks (K.S. Gopi Sundar)

↓ Gulf of Carpentaria. L: Sarus subadult foraging on edge of borrow pit, Miranda Downs. R: Sarus Crane and juvenile hunting in borrow pit, Gilbert River (K.S. Gopi Sundar)

Sarus subadult foraging Sarus Crane and juvenile hunting

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Sarus Cranes drink and bathe every morning and evening and often also during the day. Unlike Brolgas they have no specialised gland for excreting salt, but some Eastern Sarus Cranes roost in saline wetlands and Indian Sarus sometimes feed on beaches and would ingest some salt from prey. Sarus Cranes have been seen on the beach at Karumba, Queensland (J Grant). There appear to be no published observations of Australian Sarus drinking, to document whether they drink brackish as well as fresh water.

Photographs of Australian Sarus Cranes drinking are rare. L: Walking away after drinking at cattle trough, Bromfield Swamp farm (L Fisher); R: Drinking on the edge of Lake Tinaroo, a major impoundment (Sandy Carroll). Both on the Atherton Tablelands, far north Queensland.

Sarus Cranes drinking Sarus Cranes drinking

Indian Sarus Crane shaking and stretching wings to dry off after bathing (K.S. Gopi Sundar)

Sarus Crane drying Sarus Cranedrying

Next: Sarus Crane FAQ 2 | Breeding»

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