British Columbia

Birds of a feather: B.C. researchers are on a crane feather hunt

B.C. researchers want your help finding Sandhill crane feathers for a genetic study.

Group asking people to send them Sandhill crane feathers for a genetic study

Researchers are calling on the public to collect feathers of the Sandhill crane where they nest along the B.C. coastline. (Urs Boxler)

A group of B.C. researchers describing themselves as "craniacs" are asking the public to mail them crane feathers as part of The Great Sandhill Crane Feather Hunt.

The Sandhill crane spends summers along the central and north coast of B.C. and northeastern Alaska. Their feathers are easy to spot, due to the cranes' distinctive red colouring from wetland mud.

"Their feathers are kind of grey and tawny, and they often have a rusty red tip," said Krista Roessingh, one of the project's leaders. "That's because they paint their feathers in the springtime with iron-rich mud."

With the help of scientists at the University of B.C., they will use the feathers to conduct a genetic study of the Sandhill crane, a rarely studied type of crane with a small population of 5,000.

Researchers belive that the Sandhill crane was separated from an eastern, more populous species of crane during the last ice age, which resulted in different ecological adaptations.

"None of the genetic studies that have been done on these different crane populations have included cranes from the west coast before," Roessingh told Daybreak North in an interview. "This coastal population was only discovered to the crane world in the last 15 years or so."

The cranes can usually be found in the intertidal zones on the coast where they forage for snails and mussels, says Roessingh. ​

On the coast they nest in upland bogs and sometimes in estuaries and forest clearings, but in the interior they are found in fields, clear cuts, marshes, forest, and bogs. 

The group has been plotting sightings of the cranes on an interactive map.

The group of researchers are asking fellow "craniacs" to collect intact feathers, dry them and send them by mail to their genetic data centre at UBC.

However, they ask for people to only collect moulted feathers when cranes with young are not around, so as not to disrupt the birds.