"I live in an area which has become quite a habitat for the beautiful sandhill cranes. Recently I've seen people feeding some of them; things like french fries, very close to busy streets. How might I approach these people — without insulting them — and convince them that this food is not MEANT for the cranes (some people say it's not even fit for humans!), can make them sick and that they are encouraging a habit that is not only unhealthy, but very dangerous."
Sandhill cranes are cherished members of the Florida ecosystem. They stand almost four feet tall and their bugling or rattling calls are haunting and beautiful. Sandhill cranes are found in pastures, open prairies and freshwater wetlands in peninsular Florida from the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp.
Florida sandhill cranes are present in many urban areas and some unlikely places, such as golf courses, airports and suburban subdivisions. This is probably due in part to the rapid development of their native habitat by humans — the open setting (mowed grass) and availability of some foods (acorns, earthworms, mole crickets, turf grubs) likely attracts them.
In 2002, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission made it illegal to feed sandhill cranes.
It still happens though. Some "feeding" is accidental, such as when bird seed is spilled from feeders by other animals onto the ground below, making a nice feeding station for cranes. But some people deliberately feed sandhill cranes.
Cranes fed by humans can become aggressive toward people. In several instances, children have been attacked by cranes.
Cranes fed by humans also have been known to damage window screens and do other property damage. This behavior is probably a response of the birds to seeing their reflection, bringing out a territorial defense behavior (scratching at windows or shiny automobiles). Cranes also are more likely to tangle in human garbage in areas populated by people.
Cranes attracted to people's yards for feed are put at risk as they walk across roads. Many sandhill cranes are killed each year on Florida roads. Cranes are also more likely to crash into power lines in urban areas where such aerial hazards are concentrated.
Attracting cranes to urban areas increases the threat of predation (especially to young cranes) by dogs or cats. Further, the cranes' diets, which normally are quite diverse, are disrupted when they eat one food item (such as corn), consistently.
Heavy pesticide use in urban lawns also is of concern. Young sandhill cranes have died from pesticide poisoning.
People inadvertently put cranes in harms way when they attract these birds with feed.
Florida sandhill cranes have an abundance of natural foods (insects and small animals) and they do not need handouts from humans.
There are many reasons why cranes should not be intentionally fed by humans, so I hope this gives you a few you can communicate to these well-intentioned people. The bottom line message: "For the good of the cranes, please do not feed them."
Monica Folk is the Conservancy's program coordinator at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Marty Folk is a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.