by Kano Masanobu
Red-crowned cranes are the national bird of China and the largest birds in Japan. They are very important to both countries. 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.

Good Websites and Sources: Bird Life International on the Red-Crowned Crane birdlife.org/datazone ; ARKive arkive.org/japanese-crane/grus-japonensis ; Red-Crowned Crane at the International Crane Foundation savingcranes.org ; International Crane Foundationsavingcranes.org ; White-Naped Crane savingcranes.org ; Kushiro Shitsugen National Park Kushiro Tourism Association kushiro-kankou Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan

Links in this Website: ANIMALS AND ENDANGERED ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ALIEN ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BEARS, DEER, SEROW AND WILD BOARS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TANUKIS, FLYING SQUIRRELS, SMALL MAMMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SNOW MONKEYS (JAPANESE MACAQUES) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EAGLES, SWANS, CROWS AND BIRDS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CRANES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; IBISES AND CORMORANTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SNAKES, FROGS, LIZARDS AND TURTLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BEETLES, LAND CRABS AND INSECTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PLANTS AND FORESTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; GIANT SQUIDS, SHARKS , THE SEA AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; WHALES, WHALING AND DOLPHIN HUNTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PETS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EXOTIC PETS, BIRD FIGHTS AND BEETLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DOGS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DOG BREEDS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Good Sites on Wild Animals: Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/japan ;Japan Animals Blog /japan-animals.blogspot.com ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan hubpages.com/hub/japanfacts ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive

Bird Guidebooks “Guide to the Birds of China” by John MacKinnon (Oxford University Press), “A field Guide to the Birds of Russia and Adjacent Territories” by V.E. Flint (Princeton University Press)and a “Birdwatchers's Guide to Japan” by Mark Brazil (Kodansha). Birding Websites: Wild Bird Society of Japan (Japanese-only website): wbsj.org ; Birds of Japan Gallery by Monte Taylor Birds of Japan ; Birding Hotspots JapanBirding Hotspots Birdwatching in Japan Birding Pal ; Kantori Lode Kantori Lode ; Marimo marimo.or .

Japanese Cranes and Japanese Culture

Cranes are symbols of love, happiness, martial fidelity and longevity in east Asia. They are common motifs on kimonos, scrolls, screens, porcelain, lacquerware, bronze mirrors and a popular brand of playing cards. Cranes also appear in Russian folk songs, ancient Egyptian tombs, Greek myths, Australian aboriginal dances, and prehistoric European cave art.

Jennifer Ackerman wrote in National Geographic, “The Japanese have written the tancho into poems and folktales and myths. They have painted it and made statues and sculptures to it...From its habits they have drawn phrases and metaphors to describe their own behavior. They have imitated it and tried to dance as it dances. They have named streets and cities after it. They have folded it into tiny birds of paper and hung them carefully in colored festoons at temples and shrines...Most of all they. They have made I into an icon and put its image everywhere, so this extremely rare bird is, ironically, seen throughout Japan."

The 17th century Japanese poet Basho wrote the following haiku:
“Cool seascape with cranes
Wading long-legged in the pools
Amid the tideway dunes”.


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.

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.

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 sharing 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.

by Kano Eisen

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.

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, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

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