The grey crowned cranes are just as majestic as their name suggests. These birds have grey bodies, white wings with brown and golden feathers, white cheeks, long legs and bright red caruncles below the beak. Their most beautiful feature? The spray of straight golden feathers on their head that resembles a crown. Crowned cranes are the oldest of the cranes, and beat their relatives by several million years. Uganda has chosen the grey crowned crane as its national bird, because not only it’s a majestic creature, but it’s also fabled for its kind, yet proud spirit.
Everything you need to know about the grey crowned crane:
The grey crowned crane is a bird easily recognizable by the characteristic crest it has on its head. There are two species of crowned cranes in nature, the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), which is also commonly found in farms, and the black crowned crane (Balearica pavonina).
Interesting fact: this is the only species of crane able to nest on tree branches, and in turn are divided into two subspecies. The grey crowned differs in gibbericeps, widespread from Uganda and Kenya up to the northern regions of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and regulorum, which is instead found from southern Angola and northern Namibia up to Botswana and Zimbabwe in the east and southern South Africa. The black crowned crane, on the other hand, is distinguished in pavonina, widespread in West Africa, and ceciliae, which is located further east.
- Scientific name: Balearica regulorum.
- Weight: 3 – 4 kg.
- Wingspan: 180 – 200 cm.
- Age: About 15 years in the wild; over 20 years in captivity.
- Diet: Grass, seeds and insects.
- Habitat: It prefers very humid and grassy areas, in proximity of swamps, lakes and big rivers.
- Threats: Its major threats are the reduction and pollution of its habitats, as well as the expansion of the inhabited centers.
It’s quite a big bird, measuring about a meter in length, with a wingspan of up to 2 meters, and both male and female usually weigh between 3.5 and 4 kg. While in flight, especially in migration, they can be observed in the typical V shape, where the dominant male leads the flock. When the wind is too strong or a big vulture is in sight the group can assume a semicircular disposition to face the situation, and they can reach up to 5,000 m of altitude!
Unlike herons, the grey crowned cranes are not mute but they emit a trumpet like sound, that can be heard from a far, signaling their presence.
The most peculiar characteristic it’s obviously the crown of feather that both sexes have on top of their head: a golden feathers crest. The main color of their livery and beak it’s a metallic grey, while along the sides there are two large white spots, on the back tails there’s a golden shade with the terminal part in brown. On the beak, the nostrils are on the upper side and are shaped like teardrops. In addition to the crest, the head presents a velvety black area that covers the front, while the white cheeks are surmounted by two red stripes, also in red are the caruncles on the neck. The legs are long and the toes end in very long and strong nails.
Gray crowned cranes are found where grasslands and wetlands mix together like the big river estuary plains to the east and south of the African continent. The biggest remaining wild populations are spread across Kenya, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Angola, Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, and Zambia. They like to pose in water or perch in high places such as trees or electricity poles.
The grey crowned crane is omnivorous, and in nature its diet includes, tubers, sedge seeds, young fish, worms, grasshoppers and other insects and small invertebrates, as well as amphibians and small reptiles; to trample on potential prey it adopts a particular way of walking by stamping its feet. Their intestine is very long, almost 9 times more than their body!
Grey crowned cranes also join as flocks, but only outside the breeding season. Once they meet their mates they’re monogamous. Their ritual will see the couples dance together and strut each other, which helps strengthen their bond. Grey crowned cranes can become very territorial during the breeding season, usually taking place in the rainy season when wetlands becomes harder to access for predators.
Drifting away from their group, nesting couples will build nests inside, or just next to the limits of wetlands, laying a maximum of four eggs per time. The nest is built using vegetal materials and the eggs are of a pale blue color and will be guarded by both parents, taking turns to cover this duty. The hatching happens after about one month, and in only a few days the chicks will be ready to leave the nest, but will still be fed for about 50 to 60 days after the hatching.
In the IUCN Red List the grey crowned crane is classified as threatened. Men is indeed one of the main threats for this species. As some people strongly desire these birds as an ornamental pet to display in their gardens and backyards, like you would do with a statue or a fancy car, while other people even believe that the grey crowned crane’s eggs and feathers come with some special healing properties— yet to be proven true…
In addition to this, extensive poaching and illegal trade obviously decrease the number of individuals in the wild, but also prevent breeding cranes from looking after their nests and young. Instead, they must spend time paying attention to the potential dangers of nearby humans. Those birds, that are remaining in the wild, have to face the threat of having their breeding grounds more and more contaminated with pesticides or, sometimes, even see them drained and turned into agricultural fields. Some farmers have even intentionally poisoned the cranes to prevent them from interfering with their crops.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.