- California's Central Valley agricultural landscapes provide several important wintering regions for Pacific Flyway sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) populations; however, the value of those regions is being compromised by urban expansion, other developments, and conversions to incompatible crop types. Greater (G. c. tabida) and lesser sandhill cranes (G. c. canadensis) both have special conservation status in California; the greater is listed as threatened and the lesser as a bird species of conservation concern by the state. However, basic information about their wintering ecology has been lacking to design biologically sound conservation strategies to maintain their wintering habitats.
My study of sandhill cranes focused on one major Central Valley wintering region, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (Delta). I compared daily movements and winter site fidelity between the two sandhill crane subspecies, evaluated the timing of crane arrival and departure from the region, assessed foraging habitat choices, measured abundance and distribution in the Delta, documented the characteristics of roost sites, and developed habitat conservation models and decision tools for managers to facilitate habitat conservation and management.
Both crane subspecies showed strong fidelity to my Delta study area. Foraging flights from roost sites were shorter for greaters than lesser (1.2 ± 0.4 km vs. 3.1 ± 0.1 km, respectively) and consequently, mean size of 95% fixed kernel winter home ranges was an order of magnitude smaller for greaters (1.9 ± 0.4 km² vs.21.9 ± 1.9 km², respectively). The strong site fidelity of greaters to roost complexes within landscapes in the Delta indicates that conservation planning targeted at maintaining and managing for adequate food resources around traditional roost sites can be effective for meeting sandhill crane habitat needs, while the scale of conservation differs by subspecies. I recommend that conservation planning actions consider all habitats within 5 km of a crane roost as a sandhill crane conservation "ecosystem unit." This radius encompasses 95% and 69% of the flights from roosts to foraging location (commuting flights) made by greaters and lessers, respectively. For lessers, a conservation radius of 10 km would encompass 90% of the commuting flights. Management, mitigation, acquisition, easement, planning, and farm subsidy programs intended to benefit cranes will be most effective when applied at these scales. Within these radii, conservation and management of wintering habitats should include creating both new roost and feeding areas to ensure high chances of successful use.
Sandhill cranes used major crops and habitat types available in the landscapes surrounding their roost sites and focused most of their foraging in grain crops. They generally avoided dry corn stubble, selected dry rice stubble early in the season, and rarely used dry wild rice stubble. Tilled fields were also usually avoided but were occasionally used shortly after tillage. Mulched corn ranked high in comparison to other corn treatments while mulched rice use was used similarly to dry rice stubble. Both subspecies often highly favored cropland habitats when they were initially flooded. Cranes were attracted to new plantings of pasture and winter wheat. One important difference between the subspecies was that lessers used alfalfa which was generally avoided by greaters. Dry corn stubble was avoided while dry rice stubble was favored early in winter. If wildlife managers want to encourage winter field use by cranes they could provide incentives for favorable practices such as production of grain crops, reduction or delaying tillage and flooding of grain fields, provision of irrigations to some crop types, and increasing the practice of mulching of corn stubble.
Of the 69 crane night roosts I identified, 35 were flooded cropland sites and 34 were wetland sites. I found that both larger individual roost sites and larger complexes of roost sites supported larger peak numbers of cranes. Water depth used by roosting cranes averaged 10 cm (range 3-21 cm, mode 7 cm) and was similar between subspecies. Roosting cranes avoided sites that were regularly hunted or had high densities (i.e., > 1 blind/5 ha) of hunting blinds. Roost site design and management should consider providing and maintaining large roost complexes (100 - 1000 ha) ideally in close proximity (< 5 km) to other roost sites, with large individual sites (> 5 ha) of mostly level topography, dominated by shallow water (5-10 cm depths). The fact that cranes readily use undisturbed flooded cropland sites makes this a viable option for creation of roost habitat. Because hunting disturbance can limit crane use of roost sites I suggest these two uses should not be considered compatible. However, if the management objective of an area includes waterfowl hunting, limiting hunting at low blind densities (i.e., < 1 blind/60 ha) and restricting hunting to early morning may be viable options for creating a crane-compatible waterfowl hunt program.
Radio-marked sandhill cranes arrived in the Delta beginning 3 October, most arrived in mid-October, and the last radio-marked sandhill crane arrived on 10 December. Departure dates ranged from 15 January to 13 March. Mean arrival and departure dates were similar between subspecies. From mid-December through early-February in 2007-2008, the Delta population ranged from 20,000 to 27,000 sandhill cranes. Abundance varied at the main roost sites during winter, likely because sandhill cranes responded to changes in water and foraging habitat conditions. Sandhill cranes used an area of approximately 1,500 km² for foraging. Estimated peak abundance in the Delta was more than half the total number counted on recent Pacific Flyway midwinter surveys, indicating the Delta region is a key area for efforts in conservation and recovery of wintering sandhill cranes in California. Based on arrival dates, flooding of sandhill crane roost sites should be staggered with some sites flooded in early September and most sites flooded by early October. Maintaining flooding of at least some roost sites through mid-March would provide essential roosting habitat until most birds have departed the Delta region on spring migration.
Not all 5-km radius ecosystem units are equal in their value to greater sandhill cranes, and the relative foraging value of a particular parcel within an ecosystem unit depends on the numbers of cranes using the focal roost site, the habitat choices they make, and the probability that they will fly to a particular parcel. Additionally, some ecosystem units overlap, and in these overlap zones, the probability of crane use is higher, because of additive effects. To provide a tool to allow managers to further refine management plans, I developed a model which allows more specific focus of crane conservation, mitigation and habitat management, using what my study revealed about greater sandhill cranes. This model considers the abundance of greaters at individual roost sites and the probability that they would fly to a given location. Sites closer to roosts had a higher probability of crane use. I calculated the probability that greaters would fly to a parcel within concentric 1-km intervals as a product of the proportion of commuting flights of individuals that reached that interval, and the proportion of all commuting flights that reached that interval.
Within crane ecosystem units, it is important to protect the existing habitat from further loss and optimize foraging conditions for cranes. I provide a decision matrix to assist with plans to enhance existing crane landscapes, create new crane habitat areas or mitigate habitat losses. This matrix provides a framework for decision-making regarding enhancing sandhill crane foraging and roost site habitats. Wildlife managers could employ a variety of tools to conserve and manage crane habitats, including fee title acquisitions, private conservation easements, and specific cropland management actions to maintain crane-compatible conditions and high food values for cranes (possibly including providing unharvested food plots).
My study has demonstrated that most cranes use a relatively small landscape surrounding their traditional roost sites and that they favor certain crops and post-harvest crop management practices for foraging. However, we need a better understanding of the actual carrying capacity for cranes in these crane management zones to ensure that managers can maintain these sites for cranes in the future.