Throughout time and across the globe, cranes have symbolized longevity, wisdom, immortality, happiness and good fortune. Here is a gift of cranes as we welcome the new year.
There are 15 species of cranes in the world, all in one family, Gruidae. They fall under three genera; each genera–Antigone, Balearica, Grus–is represented here today (pre-pandemic).
Antigone. The sandhill crane, Antigone canadensis, is one of North America’s two crane species.
While not all cranes are migratory, the sandhill cranes are.
In Northern California we welcome their migrations on the Pacific Flyway every winter.
Cranes are gregarious birds and form large flocks. They have specialized trachea and a big vocabulary, a very vocal bird.
Many cultures associate happiness with the crane, and it is easy to see why when you have witnessed their animated flocks and mating dances.
When they reach breeding age, cranes pair off from the flock. They perform conspicuous dances to attract a mate. Waist-high birds swinging their long legs and flapping their broad wings.
Sometimes just two birds are off on the sidelines jumping and trumpeting, other times one pair starts a chain reaction and several pairs begin to flutter and hop.
They do make you want to kick up your heels and celebrate the joy of life.
This male, below, impressed his mate by repeatedly picking up clumps of dirt and tossing them into the air.
Cranes are monogamous. More info: Cranes Wikipedia.
Although cranes are large birds, they are not always easy to spot because they blend into their environment and have their heads down, foraging.
This is what a field of cranes usually looks like. This field has several hundred cranes in it.
The Sarus crane, photographed below in Australia, is the tallest flying bird in the world, nearly 6 feet (2 m) tall. Antigone antigone. A nonmigratory crane, the Sarus can be found in India, Southeast Asia and Australia.
Cranes are opportunistic feeders and change their diet according to season, location and food availability. They eat both animal and plant matter. We spotted these Sarus cranes on a sweltering day.
Grus. Eight species of cranes are in the Grus genera, including the whooping and wattled cranes shown below.
Some cultures equate cranes to immortality. Whooping cranes, the second of North America’s two crane species, nearly went extinct and were then brought back. That may not be the true definition of immortality, but whooping cranes have done an impressive come-back.
There were once over 10,000 whooping cranes on this continent prior to European settlement. Over-hunting and habitat loss reduced Grus americana to 21 birds in 1941.
Amazingly, today they still join us on this planet. After over half a century of captive breeding and conservation programs, humans have revived the whooping crane population to approximately 800. This bird remains protected on the endangered species list.
A few years ago we visited the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin. It is the only place in the world where all 15 species of cranes can be seen. The Foundation is paramount to world crane conservation.
This first photo is a whooping crane in captivity at the Foundation.
This second photo is a wild pair of whooping cranes we spotted while birding at the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. They were tiny even in our binoculars, so Athena photographed them through our spotting scope.
Africa hosts six crane species. We were near the Okavango Delta in Botswana when we came upon a flock of these wattled cranes, Grus carunculata, beside a pond. Many crane species are often found near water.
All crane bodies include a short tail that is covered with drooping feathers called a bustle. I found the wattled cranes so elegant with their long bustles, smoky colors, and bright red wattles.
Balearica. The third genera of crane includes this grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), found in eastern and southern Africa.
This is one of the most beautiful and exotic cranes I have ever seen…it didn’t seem right for them to be slopping around in the mud. While they foraged, their spiky golden crown feathers vibrated stiffly.
A variety of gregarious, exotic, elegant and dancing cranes to begin your new year. Happy New Year, dear readers, and thank you for another year of good times.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.