Celebrating Bhutan’s Black-necked Cranes

The only alpine crane species in the world, the black-necked crane is considered a sacred bird in Bhutan and is celebrated every year during the Black-necked Crane Festival.

Perched on a forest-clad hill overlooking the Phobjikha Valley, Gangtey Goemba is one of the oldest and largest Nyingmapa monasteries in Bhutan. Every November, local children, farmers, and monks flood the monastery’s courtyard to celebrate the arrival of some beloved visitors: black-necked cranes, among the rarest cranes in the world—several hundred of which migrate here each year. The cranes travel from their summer breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau to this picturesque Bhutanese valley, where they feed on the dwarf bamboo that grows in the valley’s alpine wetlands. During the winter months, as they roost amid the farms and cottages of Phobjikha, they form an integral part of life for the people who live here.

The only alpine crane species in the world, the black-necked crane is considered a sacred bird in Bhutan, revered as a symbol of longevity. With a bright red crown, black neck, and up to eight-foot wing span, the birds are both distinctive and majestic. They are the subject of Bhutanese folktales and songs, and are painted on the walls of temples throughout the country. In the Phobjikha Valley, residents honor and protect these graceful creatures, whose presence is believed to bring about bountiful harvests and prosperity.

In recent years, Bhutan has taken steps to ensure the protection of the cranes and safeguard their passage to the valley. In 2008, when the introduction of electrical power lines threatened the cranes’ migration route, the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), a nonprofit organization in Bhutan, successfully lobbied for an underground power grid instead. RSPN has also spearheaded projects with the local community to ensure a peaceful coexistence between birds and people, such as expanded protection of their wetland habitat. All of which is in keeping with Bhutan’s guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness, which emphasizes a harmonious and sustainable balance between economic growth and the all-important non-material aspects of human well-being.

The Black-necked Crane Festival, which began in 1998, draws an increasing number of travelers to this remote valley each year, creating a valuable revenue stream for Bhutanese residents. The one-day event at Gangtey Goemba provides an opportunity for locals to celebrate the arrival of the cranes, showcase their cultural heritage through masked folk dances and songs, and raise awareness about conservation issues. For visitors, it’s not only an opportunity to experience one of Bhutan’s most famed festivals—it’s also a chance to pay homage to this sacred bird while supporting a community that is working to protect it.

Travelers can experience the Black-necked Crane Festival firsthand on select departures of National Geographic’s Bhutan: Kingdom in the Clouds expedition, which includes 11 days of exploration in the remote Buddhist kingdom alongside a National Geographic Expert. Learn more about the itinerary as well as other trips to Bhutan with National Geographic.