by Kano Masanobu
Cranes are the tallest and arguably the most elegant of all flying birds. More closely related to rails and bustards than herons, ibises and storks, they are known best for their unwavering faithfulness to mates, spectacular courtship displays, large size, long migrations and loud calls. Many species can reach a height of five feet within a year after they are born. Some of them have long life spans. One Siberian crane is known to have lived for 83 years.

Cranes are admired for their grace and beauty. Symbols of love, happiness, martial fidelity and longevity in east Asia, they are a common motif on kimonos, scrolls, screens, porcelain, lacquerware, bronze mirrors and a popular brand of playing cards. Paper cranes are folded as a sign of peace. Cranes also appear in Russian folk song, ancient Egyptian tombs, Greek myths, Australian aboriginal dances, and prehistoric European cave art.

There are 15 species of crane. They generally make their homes in grasslands and wetlands. Nine species of crane are endangered. Some are near extinction. Their numbers have been reduced by hunting and habitat loss. Captive breeding programs have been set up in several countries to increase their numbers. At some of these places, cranes are raised by humans in crane costumes and taught to fly over grass runways with the help of ultralight planes flown by men in crane costumes.

Most birds in Russia migrate because few other crows and ravens can survive the long cold winters. Rare birds include auks and ivory gulls.

Crane Characteristics and Behavior

Cranes are large birds with long legs and long necks. Male and females look similar. The male is usually a little larger. They tend to feed during the day and spend the night in large communal roosts.

Cranes are opportunistic feeders that eat a wide variety of foods. They forage leftover seeds, nuts and berries and will gobble down any small animal they can catch, including insects, snails, fish, frogs, snakes and even mammals.

Cranes are famous for their songs and dances that accompany their mating rituals. Crane pairs usually stay together until of one of them dies. They establish breeding and feeding territories, which the defend aggressively against intruders. The male is most active in defending the territory.

Crane pairs establish large breeding territories in wetlands and grasslands and zealously defend them. Intruders are warned off with a loud trumpeting . A pair builds a platform nest in shallow water. Typically two eggs are laid, with both sexes share incubation duties. After they hatch chicks remain with their parents until the next breeding season. In many cases only one chick survives. The low reproductive makes rebuilding decimated crane population a difficult task.

Migrating Cranes

Japanese crane
Cranes in northern areas migrate thousands of kilometers between breeding and wintering areas. Unlike many other birds cranes are not born with the instinct to fly their migrations paths. Young are taught by the route when they accompany their parents on the migration. The young fledglings fly to their wintering ground with their parents and the family stays together until breeding time the following spring.

The distance covered by migrating cranes is between a 1,000 miles and 3,000 miles. The fly over deserts, tundra and mountain ranges and rely on wetlands along the way to rest and replenish themselves. Cranes can sustain speeds of 30 mph by flying with flapping wings. They prefer to save energy by rising in thermals and being carried by winds. Some cranes know its time to breed based on seasonal markers such as day length and rainfall amounts.

Demoiselle cranes can reach altitudes of 24,000 feet when they cross the Hindu Kush during their fall and spring migrations between nesting grounds in Central Asia and warmer, wintering areas in India. Eurasian cranes migrate between Russia and northern Europe and Spain. They prefer to make their nests in bogs but because bogs are disappearing they make their nests in pocket wetlands in cultivated areas. Whopping cranes and Siberian cranes brought up in captive breeding programs are being taught to migrate by humans with ultra lights and hand gliders. See Siberian cranes

Japanese Cranes (Red-crowned Cranes)

Japanese cranes are the largest birds in Japan. Declared "special natural monuments," they inhabit parts of China, Siberia, Korea and eastern Hokkaido. They are known in Japanese as tancho (“red mountain”) and in English as the Japanese crane and the red-crowned crane. [Sources: Jennifer Ackerman, National Geographic, January 2003, Tsuneo Hayashida, National Geographic, October 1983]

A large number of red-crowned cranes live in the Kushiro Mire, a 45,000-acre area of boreal marsh near the city of Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido. It is the crane’s main breeding area in Japan and where most of the cranes in Japan congregate in the winter. The marsh has been preserved in its natural state in part because its cool, foggy climate is not conducive to growing rice.

Japanese Crane Characteristics and Behavior

The Japanese crane is among the largest of the 15 crane species. It stands nearly five tall, weighs 22 pounds and lives more than 60 years. Males and females are virtually identical. Booth have distinctive red crowns and white and black markings on their wings and bodies.

Japanese cranes eat frogs, fish and insects. The can issue a territorial call that can be heard for two miles. They can fly at speeds of 40mph and sometimes the play act by themselves with corn husks.

The Japanese cranes live in northern Hokkaido all through the year and breed in the summer. In sub-zero temperatures the birds stay warm by standing on one leg and protecting its body underneath one wing.

In the winter the cranes in Kushiro sleep standing up one-legged in streams---whose waters are much warmer than the air---for warmth and protection from predators. Members of a group tend to wake up and sleep at different intervals so there is always a “guard bird” on the alert for predators.

Although they can aggressive and fiercely territorial in the summer, tacho sometimes congregate in huge flock in the winter. Describing a gathering in Hokkaido Jennifer Ackerman wrote in National Geographic, “Some stalk the field or stand in pairs, lifting their bills to trumpet a shrill, rolling cry, a “unison” call that carries across fields. One flares its wings and arches its back in a dramatic threat display to relieve the tension of crowding. A swoop of six arriving on motionless wings from their roost site in a nearby river, drop lightly to the ground amidst the others and lower their heads to pluck the scattered corn.”

Japanese Crane Mating and Nesting Behavior

Japanese cranes mate for life. In the mating season, males do a ritual dance in which they bow their heads and flap their wings and leap up and down with their wings outstretched. Females sometimes start dancing and sometimes entire flocks dance for what appears to be the sheer fun of it. The leaping dance of red-crowned cranes can be both a courtship dance or a sign of aggression. The Ainu emulate this dance in a ritual to charm evil spirts.

Mating is brief. The male leans on the female's back and steadies himself by flapping his wings while the female keep from falling down by placing her beak in the snow. After mating is completed the male and female bow to each other. Mating takes place two or three times a day and continues well into the nesting season.

Nests are built on the ground and tended by both parents during the four- to- five-week incubation period. Females usually lay two eggs but only one chick generally survives. Parents take turns carrying for the young which are vulnerable to attacks from foxes, cows, large raptors and dogs. The chick learns to fly after about three months but remains with its parents for almost a year, after which time it has to fend for itself.

Mates reinforce their bond with “unison” calls. Their loud calls, which an be heard up to three kilometers away, are made by thrusting aire through the bird’s long, cooled trachea as if it were some kind of brass instrument, The Japanese expression tsuri no hitoke (“call of the crane”) means a voice of authority

Endangered Japanese Crane

The Japanese crane is the second rarest crane species after the whopping crane with fewer than 2,600 worldwide. In the 1920s before 10 cranes were found it was thought they had become extinct.

Japanese cranes have been hurt by hunting, habitat loss, and deterioration of its breeding environment. Particularly devastating has been the loss of wetlands in Hokkaido, which declined from 200,000 hectares in the 1920s to 60,000 today. Many meandering rivers where the birds lived were straightened and their banks were covered with concrete.

Up until the mid 1800s red-crowned cranes were found in abundance throughout Honshu and Hokkaido, with some of the birds migrating between the two inlands, wintering in Honshu and breeding in Hokkaido. Hunting and loss of habitat forces the birds out Honshu.

The 10 survivors found in the 1920s were found the Kushiro Mire, roosting and feeding in small rivers within the marsh. In 1924 part of the marsh was designated a protected area. That helped them survive but just barely. In 1952 the population had only risen to 33 birds.

In 1952, Hokkaido was struck by a wave of blizzard and severe cold. Local farmers began feeding them corn and buckwheat to help them survive. Every winter after that the farmers fed the cranes and their numbers began to grow.

Over the years the cranes have been carefully studied; captured and released; and tracked and observed. Efforts to raise them in captivity for release failed. In 1982, 1,000 cranes, with 300 of them in Japan, were counted.

Japanese Cranes Today

In 2005, the number of Japanese cranes counted in Hokkaido exceeded 1,000 for the first time. There are currently about 1,200 Japanese crane in Japan. Most of them in Kushiro wetlands. Another 1,400 or so live outside of Japan. The cranes in Korea and southern China migrate to northern China and Siberia. Those on Hokkaido stay on the island. In June 2008, a red-crowned crane was spotted in a rice field in Akita Prefecture. It was the first time a red-crowned crane has been seen on Honshu in more than a hundred years.

In the winter the cranes congregate in places where farmers provide then with grain. There are four established feeding centers and several dozen satellite feeding stations---both public and private—in throughout eastern Hokkaido. At the Tsurui-Ito Sanctuary just outside Kushiro National Park, as many as 300 birds gather in the winter for free corn hand outs. The cranes have become very used to humans and are even regarded as pests by some. Farmers complain about them raiding fields and stealing grain intended for livestock. Some have complained about the birds pecking at their windows expecting a handout.

Today, while crane numbers continue to rise at a rate of between 5 to 7 percent a year, their habitat is rapidly shrinking. About 90 pairs nest in Kushiro Mire, which is probably the maximum the marsh can handle. The cranes are famously territorial and crowded them into a particular area reduces the likelihood that their chicks will survive, as adults search larger area for food and defend their territories, leaving nests vulnerable to predators such as foxes, eagles and crows.

In recent years there have been problems associated with tancho cranes encroaching on areas inhabited by humans. Some have disrupted traffic and been hit by cars; others eat crops for food. Some locals have complained about their presence.

The birthrate of the Japanese cranes in Japan is starting to decline. Part of the problem may be lack of fertility due to inbreeding. Having the cranes concentrated in small area also makes them vulnerable to a contagious disease. Birds have been killed by flying into electric wires, being hit by cars and trains and swallowing pesticides after falling into slurry tanks.

Development around the wetlands in Hokkaido where the cranes live has caused the water levels to drop and parts of the marsh to dry up.The marshlands in Kushiro are deteriorating as groundwater levels have dropped and development has increased. In the past 60 years the marshland has decreased in size by 30 percent.

A few cranes that winter in Hokkaido have begun breeding in the Russian-controlled Kurile islands north of Hokkaido. Japanese and Russian researchers and officials have looked into the idea of introducing cranes to open marshes of Sakhalin Island, further north still but tense relations between Russia and Japan over the Kurile Island has prevented much action from taking place.

White-Naped Crane

The white-naped crane is named after the white stripe that runs along the bird's neck. Standing up to 1.5 meters and weighing between 4.75 and 6.50 kilograms, these large birds inhabit wetlands and adjacent grasslands in China, eastern Siberia (near Vladivostok), southern Japan and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

Predominately grey, with a red spot around their eyes, white-naped cranes are monogamous. They incubate two eggs which hatch in about 30 days. Only about 4,900-5,300 of the birds remain. Their existence has been threatened by loss of habitat and disruption of migration patterns.

White-naped cranes and hooded cranes breed in the marshlands in China, Mongolia and Russia and winter in western Kyushu. Flocks of more than 1,000 birds often show up around Izumi in Kumamoto prefecture.

Hooded cranes once wintered all over Japan, but today they are only found in one or two places.

Black-Necked Cranes

The black-necked crane is named after the black coloring on the bird's neck and head. Standing 90 to 130 centimeters tall, with a wingspan of 180 to 200 centimeters and weighing between 6 to 9 kilograms, these large birds have a bright red crown and feed primarily on barley. Tibetans regarded them as holy birds.

The black-necked crane inhabits high altitude wetlands on the Quighia-Tibetan Plateau during the April-to-October breeding season and winters in low elevation agricultural valleys in China, Bhutan, India and Myanmar, particularly on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. For many of these birds their entire migration route is within China.

20080318-black necked crane in Napa hai area Travelpod.jpg
Black- Necked Crane Breeding dance

Black-Necked Crane Breeding

Black-necked cranes are monogamous. Females lay one or two eggs in a nest set on a small grassy island, surrounded by water for protection. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 30 days, and share in the child rearing duties. A family stays together during the migration until the next breeding season when juveniles join non-breeding flocks and form pair-bonds of their own.

Describing the black-necked crane mating dance, Zhang Zhiyen wrote in the Japan Times, “One bird spread its wings, jumped and down, picked up a stick in its bill and threw it into the air. Then it flapped its wings and ran in a large circle, leaping and dancing as if full of joy. At the same time its partner bowed and stretched out its neck, beat its wings and rose and fell, cutting an elegant figure.”

“The male’s cry sounded like “Ga-ga ga,” while the female’s shrill cry went “gage-gage-gagage.” They sang on together, their bills pointing up to the sky, and were still easily audible 1.5 km away...A pair of them walked quite near...They bobbed their heads up and down as they walked, crying loudly. The male stepped behind the female, and his cry became more loud and sonorous. Leaping onto the female’s back, he mated with her for 5-6 seconds; then both danced and sang for about two minutes.”

Endangered Black-Necked Crane

China claims to be home to 75 per cent of the remaining 4,200 or so left in the world. Most are found on the Tibetan plateau. The birds have made a strong comeback since the early 1980s when only about 200 remained. Their comeback has been credited to captive breeding programs and the creation of nature reserves in the areas they inhabit.

Captured cranes have been raised in nature centers. A female crane usually lay a single egg unless it is damaged or broken and then she lays another one. Biologists have stolen the eggs after they have been laid, which in turn has made females lay more eggs, as many as 15. The eggs are hatched in incubators after about 30 days. The hatchlings are raised in the center and then released in the wild.

Cao Hai is reserve in western Guizhou near Yunnan. It is the site of mountains and a grassy lake used by water birds, including the black-neck cranes. Environmentalist want the lake to remain protected. Poor farmers want the lake to be drained and the fertile soil to be used for raising crops.

Image Sources: 1) 2) British Museum 3) 4)Wolfgang Kaeler, International Wildlife Adventures 5) Hubpages blog 6) Nicolas Delerue 7) Japan-Animals blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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