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


Red-crowned cranes
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.

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

Siberian Cranes

Siberian cranes are beautiful, snowy white bird that reach a height of 1.25 meters (four feet) and have two meter (seven foot) wingspan. Often called “snow wreathes,” they have a bright red face and beak and black primary feathers on their wings,, Otherwise they are completely white. But they live a long time. One Siberian crane is known to have lived for 83 years. Regarded as the most specialized of cranes, Siberian cranes reside, nest and roost exclusively in bogs, marshes and wetlands. One reason for their severly endangered status is the shrinking of wetland habitats worldwide. [Source: George Archibald, National Geographic, May 1994]

There are two main populations of Siberian cranes: in western and eastern Russia. The eastern population migrates during winter from the Arctic tundra of eastern Russia to China while the western population migrates from Arctic tundra of western Russia and winters in Iran and formerly, in India and Nepal. Western Siberian cranes on the verge of extinction. Only one of them was left in the wild as of 2010.

Siberian cranes are the most far-ranging cranes. They migrate 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) between their breeding ground in the Siberian Arctic and their wintering grounds in China and Iran. The journey of teh two populations passes through 11 countries and covers large distances over inhospitable terrain. The birds stop at wetlands along the way.

White-Naped Crane

Red-crowned cranes
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.

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 famous Russian explorer Nikolai Mikhailovich Przewalski discovered them around Qinghai Lake in 1876. Black-necked crane nest their young in marshlands at an elevation between 3500-4500 in the Southern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and spend their winter in the highlands or mountains at an elevation between 3500-2500 of Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. They are the only kind of crane that lives on such high plateau areas.

Black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) are largest crane. They are wading birds. Their preferred habitats are grassland in plateaus, farm fields and marshes. They catch small aquatic animals in shallow water with their bill or dig foods from mud and soil and eat fish, insects, mollusk, roots and stems of vegetation. They can be found in northern Yunnan and Sichuan and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and nearby places. They are regarded as an endangered species.

Black-necked cranes are migrating birds. They spend their time in pairs in the mating seasons and move around in family groups or larger groups at other time. They inhabits high altitude wetlands on the Qinghai-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 therefore, they are usually regarded as endemic bird species of China.

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. If there is enough food, two young birds are raised. If food is in short supply one of them is. 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.

During the mating season, the male and female cranes often cry to each other. Their cries sound like "ge-lu" to Chinese. Males dance elegantly to attract females. 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.”

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

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.

Last updated May 2016

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