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, sub-species, time in Australia and numbers. 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. 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.

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

Sarus foot

VIDEOS (Youtube):

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Sarus Crane sub-species

There are five different populations of Sarus Crane: South Asia (India and Nepal: Antigone a. a.); SE Asia (A. a. sharpii, mainly Cambodia and Vietnam); Australia (A. a. gillae); Philippines (A. a. luzonica, Extinct); and Burmese (Myanmar and China: not yet named). In 1966 Australian Sarus were first classified as A. a. sharpii, but in 1988 a new Australian sub-species gillae was described based on differences in size and plumage (Canberra Bird Notes 13:4, Dec. 1988, pp.119-122).

Until 2020, genetic studies did not support distinguishing sub-species: the differences between all Sarus were regarded as clinal (gradual and continual across the range). However new genetic analysis by Tim Nevard and colleagues» supports Australian Sarus as a separate subspecies. This was the first study to include material from all forms, including the extinct Philippines population, which seems genetically closest to the Australian Sarus. This suggests that Australian Sarus could provide stock for a reintroduction to the Philippines if this ever becomes possible.

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 and Vietnam. 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.


Nevard TD, Haase M, Archibald G, Leiper I, Van Zalinge RN, Purchikoon N, Siriaroonrat B, Latt TN, Wink M and Garnett ST. 2020. Subspecies in the Sarus Crane Antigone antigone revisited; with particular reference to the Australian population. PLOS ONE

KL Jones et al. (2005). ‘Geographical partitioning of microsatellite variation in the sarus crane’ Animal Conservation 8(1): 1-8

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

TC Wood & C Krajewski (1996). ‘Mitochondrial DNA sequence variation among the subspecies of Sarus Crane (Grus antigone).’ Auk 113: 655-663.

Sarus Cranes with cattle

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

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Time in Australia

How long have Sarus been in Australia? When Sarus were first formally recorded here in 1966, debate began about their time as residents. The main argument favouring recent (say 1950s) arrival is that such a different bird would have been noticed sooner. While this question has not been resolved, majority opinion is in favour of a longer term:

Von Sturmer's transcription of Aurukun names for Brolga and Red-legged Brolga (Beruldsen, GR. 1997. Is the Sarus Crane under threat in Australia? Sunbird 27, pp. 72-78).


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As outlined in Ozcranes Crane Intro, the number of Australian Sarus is uncertain. The Crane Conservation Strategy» (Mirande & Harris 2019) estimates the global population as 13550 to 20650, with 5000-10000 in Australia. The only known significant non-breeding concentration of Sarus Cranes in Australia is on the Atherton Tablelands, far north Queensland. 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 826-3255 in non-breeding flocks on the Atherton Tablelands (see Scambler et al. 2020, Crane Count results). This includes juveniles and immatures, and represents an unknown proportion of the total population. No trend in numbers was detected in this study. Molecular studies don't seem to support a recent increase. Annual recruitment shown by numbers of first year young with adults wintering on the Atherton Tablelands is variable but with no trend». Researchers studying the Gulf area (J Grant, T Nevard: see Ozcranes Research) believe most of the Australian population remains in the Gulf year-round but there are no systematic dry season counts in the Gulf or on Cape York and even incidental records are scarce, so any population trend there is unknown.

Are numbers increasing? Around the time of HANZAB2 in 1993, and when Ozcranes began in 2004, a popular opinion was that Australia's Sarus Crane population was increasing. But as suggested by Beruldsen (above), it's more likely that Sarus were simply spending the Dry non-breeding season in more conspicuous places, and interested people were more mobile where Sarus live. Recent historical research» by Elinor Scambler, based on records left by pioneer Tablelands ornithologist Jim Bravery, supports a major species shift on the Atherton Tablelands after about 1975, which could have impressed observers as a population increase in Sarus Cranes. Until then, some 1500 cranes wintered on the Tablelands, mostly Brolgas. Between 1975 and the start of annual Crane Counts in 1997, Sarus Cranes became the dominant species, although total crane numbers wintering on the Tablelands remained on average about the same. The reasons for this species shift are not clear but may include significant changes in wetland roost habitats on the Tablelands.

Next: Sarus food and water» and Sarus FAQ 2 | Breeding»>

« Back to Brolga & Sarus Crane Introduction

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