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.

White-Naped 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 (neat 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. The 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.

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.

There have long been plans to raise Siberian crane chicks in captivity in Russia by people in crane costumes and train them to fly behind ultralight planes (motorized hang gliders) flown to their wintering areas. In autumn 2005, three ultralights were launched from Uvat, Russia flew over western Kazakstan and stopped at the Volga River, Astrakhan nature Reserve and followed the Caspian Sea to crane wintering grounds in Iran. In September 2012, Russia's president Vladimir Putin piloted an ultralight over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes at the beginning of their migration southward.

Siberian Crane Behavior

Siberian cranes feed on snails, roots, sedge tubers and insects. Males sometimes fight at their feeding spots. The fights are quick with the loser walking away, feigning indifference. Siberian cranes are very territorial. They puff out their feathers and make loud calls to repel intruders.

Siberian cranes mate for life and share nesting, foraging, incubating and child rearing duties. Males and females fluff out their breast feathers and do a dance in the mating season. Females carefully preen their necks with mud as if it were make up. This means it is time to dance. Parents generally incubate two eggs but only raise a single dominant hatchling. They teach their young to fly, find food and oil their feathers with a gland on their back to make them waterproof.

Siberian cranes have a flute-like voice and don’t breed until they are five to seven years old. In contrast other cranes have a trumpet-like calls and begin breeding when they are three. Young Siberian cranes have brown heads and brown splotches on their wings and body. They grow an inch a day and imprint to their first care givers, even if they are humans. Young cranes are born and spend just a short time in the Arctic summer before they have to make the journey south.

Siberian Crane Migrations

The main western Siberian crane migration routes have traditionally been: 1) from a summer breeding area around the Ob River near the Arctic Ocean and east of the Ural mountains and a wintering area at Keoladeo National Park in India, passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan along the way: 2) from around Gorki Russia, just east of the Urals and just south of Arctic Ocean to a breeding area and a wintering area south of the Caspian Sea in Iran; and 3) from a summer breeding area in Chokurdakh in eastern Siberia near the Arctic Ocean and a wintering area at Poyang Lake in China.

Siberian cranes no longer migrate to India. They used to migrate 6,000 kilometers (3,400 miles) between Siberia and India, crossing the Himalayas and often attaining an elevation of up to 30,000 feet—the cruising altitude for commercial jets. Unlike many other birds cranes are not born with the instinct to fly their migrations paths. They have to be taught. They conserve energy by riding air currents for miles.

Scientists have trained Siberian cranes bred on captivity to fly to Iran rather than India, because there are less dangers on that route. World hang glider champion, Angelo d’Arrigo, has been involved in the program. The ultralights are basically hang gliders that have small motors which are used for take offs and situations in which there are no thermalis to ride. The plan has been for the vast majority of the simulated migration flight to be done without the engine. Cranes were brought up with d’Arrigpo and his hnag glider and were trained to follow it. Their journey was scheduled to take place over 40 days and 3,400 miles.

Endangered Siberia Crane Migrations

Siberian cranes are the most endangered of the 15 species of crane. There are estimated to be around 3200 to 4000 of them, with 98 percent wintering at Poyang Lake in China, which is threatened by hydrological changes caused by the Three Gorges Dam and other water development projects. The western population has dwindled to 4 in 2002 and was thought to be extirpated but one 1 individual was seen in Iran in 2010.

Siberian cranes have been hurt by loss of habitat caused by rapid development and deforestation, uncontrolled hunting and a lack of preservation effort to save them. Some cranes are believed to have been shot while flying over war-ravaged Afghanistan. Others have been brought down in Pakistan by hunters with rocks tied to twine. In Rajasthan, Indian in 1914, 4,000 birds were killed in a single day during a maharajahs hunting party.

The cranes that wintered in India are believed to be extinct. The number of them at Keoladea Ghana National Park in India declined from 200 in 1965 to five in 1998. There were nine in 1999. At that time six were seen in Iran. The Iran group is probably extinct now too. The last remaining flock winters in China. No other flocks are known.

Young cranes have been successfully hatched and raised in captive breeding centers. Chicks are kept in visual and vocal isolation form their human keepers who feed them with hand puppets. Efforts to get adult cranes to teach captive bred youngsters to fly the route have failed.

Red-Crowned 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.

Image Sources:

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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