Cranes are omnivorous and some species rely heavily on aquatic foods (Walkinshaw 1973). Most cranes probe the subsurface with their bills and take foods from the soil surface or vegetation. Young chicks are fed by their parents and gradually become more independent in their feeding until they separate from the parents prior to the next breeding season. During these first 10 months of development, captive cranes are extremely inquisitive. Perhaps this drive to investigate novel objects helps them discover food items in the wild.
Sandhill Cranes feed primarily on small grains (corn, wheat, barley, and sorghum) in fall, winter, and spring, but during the nesting season (when they associate more with wetlands), the greater part of the diet consists of crayfish, plant tubers, chufa, rodents, frogs, berries, bird’s eggs, and nestlings (Walkinshaw 1949; Lewis 1974; Bennett 1978; Mullins and Bizeau 1978; Iverson et al. 1982; Herter 1982). Summer foods of the Whooping Crane include frogs, minnows, berries, and large nymphal and larval forms of insects (Allen 1956; Novakowski 1966). Principal winter foods of Whooping Cranes include blue crabs, clams, marine worms, amphibians, crayfish, fish, snails, insects, and sedge tubers found in coastal marshes and estuaries, but these cranes also feed in uplands on berries, acorns, insects, and small vertebrates (Allen 1952; Uhler and Locke 1969; Hunt and Slack 1987) .
The 15 crane species can be divided into several groups based on the habitats in which they feed during the breeding and nonbreeding season. The less common species worldwide, like the Whooping Crane, Siberian Crane, Wattled Crane, Red-crowned Crane, Black-necked Crane, and White-naped Crane, are more dependent on aquatic habitats throughout the year and not just during the breeding season.
Food and Drinking Water
Crane diets were adapted from poultry diets (Serafin 1982). Cranes consume about 4% of their body weight per day (Halibey 1979 unpubl.). Commercial diets have made it more convenient and less expensive to feed a controlled diet to cranes.
There are usually three types of formulated crane diets (Tables below) . Adult cranes receive Maintenance or Breeder Diets depending on the season. Chicks are provided a Starter Diet. Most formulated crane diets are composed largely of vegetable matter and less than 10% animal matter. The Patuxent diet is 15.0% protein (Maintenance Diet) or 22.0% protein (Breeder Diet). The ICF diet is 19.4% and 20.5% protein for Maintenance and Breeder Diets. Patuxent and ICF Breeder Diets also have a higher calcium level (2.4 5%) than the Maintenance Diets (1.0%). Starter Diets for chicks have increased protein, calcium, and vitamin B levels (Tables below). Chicks also need a higher calcium/phosphorus ratio in their food than non-breeding adult cranes, because of mineral demands for bone and feather growth. Begin feeding Breeder Diet two months before the anticipated egglaying season (Russman and Putnam 1980).
Feed formulas for chicks, non-breeding adults, and breeding adults 
|Ground yellow corn||24.4%||38.8%||41.2%|
|Soybean meal (44% protein)||–||13.1%||15.0%|
|Soybean meal (49% protein)||31.5%||–||–|
|Fish meal (60% protein)||–||4.0%||5.0%|
|Meat and bone meal||–||5.2%||4.0%|
|Alfalfa meal (17% protein)||5.0%||5.2%||5.0%|
|Corn distillers solubles||3.0%||–||1.5%|
|Brewers dried yeast||2.5%||–||2.0%|
|Composition of Formulated Diets|
|Metabolizable Energy, kcal/kg||2689||2530||2533|
|Percent methionine and cysteine||0.7%||–||–|
Vitamin/mineral premix for feed formulas1
|Starter||Breeder and Maintenance|
|Choline chloride 60%||40%||40%|
|Vitamin E 227||7%|
|Calcium Pantothenate 160||1.1%||1.1%|
|Vitamin B12 300||0.5%||0.5%|
|Vitamin A 650||0.25%||0.25%|
|Vitamin D3 400||0.1%||0.1%|
|Zinc Oxide 72%||3.0%||3.0%|
|Manganese Oxide 60||4.5%||4.5%|
|Folic Acid 10%||0.1%||0|
1 ICF Custom Premix. Commercial premixes for turkeys or chickens are also used with manufacturer’s inclusion rates followed.
The type of protein in a chick diet is very important. To minimize sulphur amino acids (cystine and methionine), Starter Diets (Table above) should use vegetable protein only. Chicks that are provided Starter Diets containing high proportions of sulphur amino acids develop more leg and wing abnormalities than chicks that consume diets low in sulphur amino acids (Serafin 1982) . Avoid feeding animal products, especially fish, on a daily basis because they contain more sulphur amino acids than most vegetable proteins. Pellet Size . We recommend that crane feed, except for young chicks, should be pellets that are 5 mm in diameter and 6-15 mm long. Chicks less than 2-3 week sold should be fed crumbles (2-5 mm diameter nuggets) and then gradually introduced to the larger pellets. Read more about this here
Egg laying Season: One or two months before cranes are expected to lay eggs, change to Breeder Diet (Table above) and supply crushed oyster shell (mixed with pelleted food or in a separate container) as a calcium supplement.
Pellet Size: We recommend that crane feed, except for young chicks, should be pellets that are 5 mm in diameter and 6-15 mm long. Chicks less than 2-3 weeks old should be fed crumbles (2-5 mm diameter nuggets) and then gradually introduced to the larger pellets.
To read more on hand-rearing crane chicks, click here
Feed should be stored at 1.7-4.4°C (35-40°F) with low humidity. It is very important that crane food be kept dry to eliminate mold and reduce bacterial growth. Storage areas should be clean and free of rodents and insects. Some ingredients in synthetic diets, especially vitamins, have a limited storage life (Carpenter 1979). If a refrigerator is not available, store no more than a one-month supply at ambient temperature; refrigerated food can be held up to three months. Feed can be frozen for up to one year, but it will loose some of its nutritional value, may become easier to pulverize , and may acquire odors or tastes that make it less palatable. Water condenses on feed bags removed from a freezer during warm, humid weather, so allow the bags to stand separately and dry.
Place the food in a hopper feeder or an elevated bucket to reduce its accessibility to vermin and to facilitate removal of spilled food. Place the feeder in a shelter to shield it from rain, snow, and sunlight. To further limit water contact, keep the feeder at least 1 m from the water supply.
Frequency of Feeding
In warm, humid climates, it is necessary to change the food daily. In temperate climates, check the food daily or at least three times a week, depending on the weather (more often when wet or snowy), and note the amount of feed consumed. Low use may indicate illness or a taste aversion. However, during warm winter days or the first days of spring, some cranes stop eating for a day or more and rely on stored fat. An easy test of food use is to mound the food into a cone in the feeder and look for depressions in the cone that day or the next. Placing a favorite food, such as smelt or corn, on top of the food also confirms whether a crane is eating. Another method is to mark the food level and determine quantitatively how much the food level is reduced. Be aware, however, of spillage and consumption by wild birds. Discard wet or pulverized feed before it loses its nutritional value or becomes moldy. Completely change the feed monthly and disinfect the feeder or bucket if it becomes wet.
Cranes need fresh drinking water at all times. Constantly flowing, elevated, watering cups are preferred because they are the most sanitary watering system available and require a minimum of maintenance. Float-operated water troughs that automatically fill provide fresh water for extended periods and have also been used successfully. If cranes are housed in enclosures with fresh, running water, an artificial supply is not needed. Water should not flow from one crane pen to another. Clean the cups or automatic trough waterers at least once a week using a stiff brush. Check the water delivery system daily to make sure it is functioning properly. Nine-liter, heavy-duty, rubber buckets placed in a secure spot can be an alternate water source. However, these buckets require more effort to keep clean and they are a greater health hazard. If used, clean daily and disinfect once or twice each month. If an individual crane stands or defecates in its water container, elevate the container so the crane can no longer do so. Buckets should always be kept on hand for use when the automatic waterers fail or freeze. In cold climates, drinking water may require heating to prevent freezing. Some automatic watering systems have built-in heaters. Flowing water may not require heating, but for buckets, a pole-type water heater works well.