Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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With a striking crown of stiff golden feathers, the gray crowned crane's greatest threat comes from humans who view this bird as a status symbol, resulting in widespread poaching and illegal trade.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Gray crowned crane


What is the gray crowned crane?

Gray crowned cranes are every bit as majestic as their name suggests. One of 15 species of crane, these long-legged birds have gray bodies, white wings with brown and gold feathers, white cheeks, and bright red gular sacs underneath their chins. Most strikingly, a spray of stiff golden feathers forms a crown around their heads.

Crowned cranes—which also include the black crowned species (Balearica povonina) are the most ancient of the cranes, predating their relatives by tens of millions of years. The gray crowned crane is the national bird of Uganda and has two subspecies, the eastern African gray crowned crane and southern African gray crowned crane.

Unfortunately, their distinctions have also put gray crowned cranes at risk: Considered status symbols among the wealthy, these birds are being captured and illegally sold in large numbers. That and other threats have prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to list the gray crowned crane as endangered.

Habitat and diet

Gray crowned cranes can be found in mixed wetland/grassland habitats in eastern and southern Africa, with the largest remaining populations in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, and South Africa. They forage for grass seeds, small toads, insects, and other invertebrates. Gray crowned cranes are also known to forage on millet, potatoes, and soya beans being grown on farms near their habitats. They roost in water or perched in high spots like trees or electricity poles. Gray crowned cranes also come together as flocks—but only outside of breeding season.

Mating and reproduction

Once they meet their mates, gray crowned cranes are monogamous. Couples dance together and preen one another’s necks, which helps strengthen their bond. Gray crowned cranes are also highly territorial during the breeding season, which usually takes place in the rainy months when wetlands are less accessible to predators. Moving away from the flock, breeding couples build nests in or along the edges of the wetlands, where they lay up to four eggs at a time.

Threats to survival

Humans are one of the greatest threats that gray crowned cranes face. While some want the birds as decorative pets to show off in their yards as status symbols, others believe their eggs and feathers have medicinal properties. Widespread poaching and illegal trade not only diminish the number of cranes in the wild, but they also prevent adult cranes from tending to their nests and chicks. Instead, they must spend their time watching out for potential danger from nearby humans.

Those that remain in the wild have to contend with threats to their breeding grounds, which are increasingly either contaminated by pesticides or drained and converted to fields. Some farmers even intentionally poison cranes to stop them from foraging in their crops. Gray crowned cranes have also been killed in collisions with power lines. Deforestation, mining, dam construction, and climate change degrade the crane’s wetland habitat.

Conservation

There are ongoing efforts to save gray crowned cranes. National Geographic grantee Olivier Nsengimana, a veterinarian in Rwanda, has been working for years to abolish the illegal trade in gray crowned cranes. His nonprofit, the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, works with the Rwandan government and local communities to raise awareness about the plight of these birds.

Combined with a government amnesty program—which encourages anyone who has captured or illegally bought gray crowned cranes to return them without penalty—Nsengimana’s nonprofit has had success in reintroducing these birds to the wild. But there’s still much work to be done as experts estimate the gray crowned crane’s global population may have declined by as much as 79 percent in recent decades.


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National Geographic Explorer Olivier Nsengimana has set out to rescue captive gray crowned cranes. Along with his team, he began a program taking cranes out of captivity and placing them back into their natural habitat.