West African Crowned Crane
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Program and General Information
West African black crowned cranes are native to the grasslands, marshes, and meadows of Northwest Africa. They are typically found near lakes and streams. They average about 3 feet in height and have wing spans reaching up to 6 feet. . Adults have a black body with white wings and wing feathers ranging in color from white to brown to gold. The head is topped with stiff golden feathers, red and white cheek patches, and a small red throat sac. Crowned cranes are omnivores that eat primarily grasses, seeds, and grains, but will also consume insects, small mammals/ reptiles, and even seeds from cultivating crops. Breeding occurs from May to December, typically during the rainy season. Black crowned cranes nest in or very near standing water. Females lay clutches of 3-4 eggs and incubation lasts about 30 days. A family of black crowned cranes will stay together for 9-10 months, and by 12 months chicks will begin gaining their adult plumage. Maturity is reached around 3 years.
West African black crowned cranes are omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. The majority of their diet consists of grasses, seeds, and grains, but they will also consume crustaceans, small mammals, reptiles, and seeds from cultivating crops. They tend to forage most in grasses growing near marshes and swamps, and in croplands.
Black crowned cranes roost in trees at night and are active during the day. They spend 50-75% of their waking hours foraging for food. They may seek shade and rest during the hottest part of the day, and will pant visibly on extremely hot days. These cranes are known to stamp their feet when walking through grassy vegetation in order to stir up insects that they can feed upon. They will also walk among grazing cattle, presumably to catch insects that cattle disturb and/or attract.
Habitat and Range
West African black crowned cranes are native to Northwest Africa from Chad and Cameroon to Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. They prefer more wetland areas and can be found near lakes and streams in open grasslands, marshes, and meadows.
Black crowned cranes are quite noticeable when gathering together and roosting in large flocks. They often select habitats with trees, because they are one of only two crane species that are able to roost in trees.
Common Physical Features
West African crowned cranes can get up to 3 feet and have a wing span of 6 feet. Although they are a rather tall bird, these cranes only weigh on average 8 pounds. Adults have a black body with white wings and wing feathers ranging in color from white to brown to gold. The head is topped with stiff golden feathers, red and white cheek patches, and a small red throat sac. They also have long, black legs and a short, grey bill. The juveniles have blackish feathers with a cinnamon-brown head, no cheek patches, and a spiky, dull crown.
Adaptations: Crowned cranes are named for their striking golden head feathers. There is even an African legend about their golden crowns! The legend states that a great chief once became lost while hunting with his court in the heat of the summer. He quickly became weak from lack of water and food. He asked several passing animals, such as zebra, elephant, and antelope, if they would help him, but they all refused because he had hunted them. Finally, a flock of cranes flew by and agreed to help him. They brought the chief water and then led him to his court. As a reward, he had his goldsmith make each crane a gold crown. The next day, the cranes appeared without the crowns and explained to the chief that the other animals were jealous and had stolen and destroyed the crowns. The chief then called for his court magician, who touched each crane on the top of the head. From the place where the crane was touched grew its crown of gold feathers.
Because of their height, African crowned cranes are able to easily see over tall grass and keep an eye out for any nearby predators. The golden feathers on top of their head also help the bird camouflage among the grass.
Cranes are some of the tallest birds in the world. In flight, their body forms a straight line from bill to toes. They use a slow, downward flap and a rapid upstroke. They fly with their neck outstretched and their feet straight out behind.
These remarkable birds also have a vast vocal communication system. Each type has its own tone and volume, from the soft honks of crowned cranes to the flutelike call of Siberian cranes. Crane chicks start to learn their “language” as soon as they hatch and know at least six calls by the end of their first year.
Behavior and Life Cycle
Black Crowned Cranes are monogamous and appear to mate for life. During courtship they perform a “nuptial dance” in which both birds bob, bow, and jump around each other while calling and spreading their wings. All cranes, young and old alike, participate in elaborate, enthusiastic “dancing.” For the young, dancing helps to develop physical, social skills, and may even help to reduce anxiety/stress. Pairs cooperatively build nests, incubate eggs, and care for their young. Black crowned cranes nest in or very near standing water, in marshes, swamps, or flooded fields. This provides cover but allows the crane maximum visibility with only its head showing.
Breeding season occurs from May to December and cranes may move to more wetland areas to breed. Pairs will defend their nesting territory aggressively.
Females lay clutches of 2-4 eggs and incubation lasts about 30 days. Eggs laid in warmer climates are white or light-colored to help the eggs reflect excess heat. Eggs laid in colder regions are darker in color so the eggs can absorb heat. After the chicks hatch, they stay near the nest for about a day and then begin to follow their parents around in search of food. About 12 hours after hatching they are capable of swimming and floating. They begin eating after 24 hours. A family of black crowned cranes will stay together for 9-10 months before the chicks are left to their own devices. Chicks will begin to gain their adult plumage around 12 months and will reach maturity around 3 years.
Conservation of the Natural World
Black Crowned Cranes are in danger due to habitat loss including desertification, illegal capture for commercial trade, unintentional and intentional poisoning, human disturbance, unsustainable exploitation and conversion of wetlands.
Habitat loss and degradation are the Crowned Crane’s major threats. This occurs due to natural events such as droughts and fires, and human events such as overgrazing, agriculture, pollution, and industrial construction. The intensification of agriculture has also increased the amount of pesticide use. This can be toxic to cranes if ingested and will also decrease the amount of food available.
What can we do?: Supporting local conservation efforts and organizations is a great way to help ensure species such as the West African black crowned crane continue to thrive. One of the biggest ways we can help is by supporting sustainable agriculture practices. By purchasing products that are certified by organizations such as Bird Friendly, you are helping in the conservation of forests and habitats around the world. Switching to a more sustainable lifestyle can also help. By using public transport, turning off lights that are not in use, reducing the use of plastic, and using more organic cleaning products we can help to reduce pollution in our environments. Remember the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle!”
- Some African people believe these birds bring rain, while others have incorporated the crane’s dances into their own rituals.
West African crowned cranes are also known as black crowned cranes and are the national bird of Nigeria.
- The mating rituals of crowned cranes are so engaging that some African tribes have made them a part of their culture.
- In a flock of cranes, once a dance starts, it can quickly become contagious, with all the cranes joining in.
- Red-crowned cranes are associated with nobility and immortality in China.
- The flag of Uganda features a crowned crane, making it one of the few national flags to bear the image of a bird.
- Fossil records show that crowned cranes existed 37 to 54 million years ago. Prehistoric cave paintings of cranes have been found in Europe, Africa, and Australia.