There’s a certain population at UCF that eats, sleeps and, well, is at the university pretty much 24/7 – and student researcher Marissa Zimmerman is seeking your help to document their movements and activities.

The Environmental Studies senior is studying the Florida sandhill cranes that live on the 1,415-acre campus. She is establishing a baseline understanding of the UCF birds and the factors that influence them.

That’s where “citizen scientists” – anyone with a camera phone and an interest in the project – can help. To assist Zimmerman in determining where the cranes spend most of their time, their patterns, where they nest, food sources, and other information, she is asking for anyone who sees them on campus to snap photos of the birds in their habitat and send them to her.

“Florida sandhill cranes nest and forage on our campus and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate animal to study,” Zimmerman said. “To me, the Florida sandhill crane is symbolic of Florida. They were always around my Florida homes as I was growing up, and I had always admired them. When I moved away from Florida, I found myself missing the cranes and was glad when I came to UCF that they were here.”

Even though the cranes are seen around urban areas, they are listed as threatened because of habitat destruction, mostly due to development. (Read more about sandhill cranes below this story.)

“I thought this was my opportunity to help our UCF population,” she said. “I am taking this data to determine what areas on campus these cranes would benefit most from preserving. The more sightings the more accurate my conclusions will be. That’s why I’m thankful for everyone’s help.”

At one point, she said she had documented 16 of the birds living on campus.

The research is being conducted through UCF’s Research and Mentoring Program at the Arboretum.

“Sandhill cranes are one of our most charismatic native bird species,” said Patrick Bohlen, a professor of biology and director of Landscape and Natural Resources and Arboretum. “We are very interested in basic questions such as how many resident birds there are on campus, which habitats they use, where they are breeding, and, more regrettably, what risks they face in the urban environment.”

He said the “citizen scientist” component of the project not only enables Zimmerman to collect more data, but also provides a way to get people interested in making observations and contributing to an understanding of our campus ecology.

Zimmerman will accept photos until November. She will present her conclusions next spring at UCF’s Showcase of Undergraduate Research Excellence. After she graduates, she hopes to earn a master’s degree in behavioral ecology.

“I have always had a passion for anything nature-related, especially animals,” Zimmerman said. “Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be an ecologist – even before I knew what an ecologist was.”

She hopes this is just the beginning of research on UCF’s sandhill cranes.

“I hope this project doesn’t end. I hope it expands…to study the changes in population density and habitat use over the years to help us protect this species and understand them even more,” she said.

To submit a photo of UCF’s cranes, send to with the subject line “Cranes.” Include the time, date, number of cranes sighted and any other descriptions observed, such as life stage and behavior.


Florida sandhill cranes

Florida sandhill cranes are gray, heron-like birds that stand about 4 feet tall with a patch of bald, red skin on top of their heads.

The threatened species is found in inland shallow freshwater marshes, prairies, pastures and farmlands – and on lawns. They do not adjust well to changed environments and high human populations. Sandhill cranes usually are seen in small family groups or pairs. Mature cranes stay with the same mate for several years and young sandhills stay with their parents until they are about 10 months old.

They are omnivorous and some of their favorite meals include seeds, plant tubers, grains, berries, insects, earthworms, mice, snakes, lizards, frogs and crayfish.

The call made by the sandhill crane is one of the most distinctive bird sounds in Florida. This bugling or trumpeting sound can be heard for several miles.

Sandhills live to be older than most birds, some up to 20 years.