The Sarus crane is the world's tallest flying bird. This crane, when standing, is as tall as a man. These elegant birds are predominantly gray, with long, pale red legs. Their naked head is red, as is their neck. Juveniles have buff feathers on their head and slightly darker plumage.
Sarus cranes live in Southeast Asia, northern India and in northern Australia. Three populations are currently recognized, each one occupying a distinct range. The Indian sarus crane lives in northern and central India, Pakistan and Nepal. The Eastern Sarus crane used to live throughout Southeast Asia but now is confined to Vietnam and Cambodia, with a small population in Myanmar. The Australian Sarus crane lives in northern Australia. These cranes live mainly in wetlands such as canals, marshes and ponds, sometimes near humans. They inhabit cultivated areas too, and high-altitude wetlands. Breeding is further inland, but always in a wet area. During the dry season, the Sarus crane occurs in shallow wetlands, wet grasslands or rice fields.
Sarus cranes are regarded as the least social crane species. Especially when nesting, they can be very protective, and are aggressive towards intruders. They can therefore be considered a territorial species. Breeding pairs remain close by areas which have ample water supply. Pairs that are non-breeding flock together in bigger wetland areas. Although breeding pairs are territorial, sarus cranes form bigger flocks in the non-breeding season. The size of a flock usually depends on the wetland area. Within flocks, the cranes feed and roost. Sarus cranes are active during the day and sleep at night. They are known for dancing to attract mates. Characteristic loud trumpeting sounds may accompany these dances.
Sarus cranes are omnivorous, and eat a wide range of food, such as aquatic plants like sedge tubers, seeds, rice and other grains, crustaceans, snails, large insects such as grasshoppers, amphibians, reptiles, small vertebrates and fish.
Sarus cranes are monogamous birds and pairs mate for life, however, "divorce" cases and mate replacement take place. The breeding season for these cranes is typically during the rainy season, from June to September. The birds perform courtship dances to attract attention and impress their mate. All age groups typically dance, from young fledglings which are developing their motor skills to bonded pairs displaying courtship. These birds nest on the ground. A bulky nest is formed from wetland vegetation. Females usually lay two eggs, occasionally three, and incubation lasts for around 31 to 34 days, and is mainly done by the female, while the male defends the site of the nest. Chicks can follow the adults from the day they hatch, and they fledge 85 to 100 days from hatching, when they are able to make their first flight.
Sarus cranes are threatened mainly by loss of habitat throughout their range, due to drainage of wetlands, agricultural expansion and human development, which degrades their habitat. The use of pesticides, as well as collisions with wires, are important threats. These cranes are also commonly targeted by humans hunting and egg collecting. Sometimes eggs are stolen, and the chicks raised for food.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Sarus crane is 19,000-21,800 individuals, including 13,000-15,000 mature individuals. There are also specific estimates of this species in these regions: India, Nepal and Pakistan - 8,000-10,000 cranes; Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - 800-1,000 cranes, Myanmar – 500-800 cranes and 10,000 breeding adults in Australia. Overall, Sarus cranes’ numbers are decreasing today and they are classified as vulnerable (VU) on the list of threatened species.
As a predator of small invertebrates and vertebrates, Sarus cranes have an important role in controlling these populations. The abundance of their eggs also influences food sources for their natural predators. They also help control vegetation.