Order: Gruiformes - cranes, lumpkins, rails, gallinules, coots, bustards
Family: Gruidae - cranes
Scientific Name: Balearica regulorum gibbericeps
Description: The East African crowned crane is a large, graceful bird with long neck and legs, a streamlined body, and long rounded wings. It reaches 3 ½ feet in height, with a wingspan up to 6 ½ feet. It is easily recognizable by a tuft of straw-colored, bristle-like feathers on its crown. The bird is generally dark gray, with a paler gray neck and underparts. The wings appear mostly white in flight, with black primaries and chestnut secondaries. The forehead is black and there are red and white patches on the cheeks. Males and females are almost identical, but males can be slightly larger.
Home Range: South-eastern parts of Africa (Uganda and Kenya, south to Northern Zimbabwe and Mozambique).
Habitat Type: Mixture of wetlands and open grassland or savannah; increasingly found on agricultural land.
Reproduction: Crowned cranes are monogamous – mated birds stay together throughout the year, and will remain paired for life if breeding is successful. Elaborate dances by both partners play an important role in pair formation and breeding, especially for young pairs. (See more about “dancing” in general info section). They can breed year-round. The nest is built of uprooted grasses and sedges piled into a circular platform, usually on the ground but sometimes in a tree. The female usually lays two or three eggs, which are bluish-white and oval-shaped. The incubation period is about 30 days, and both partners help to incubate the eggs. Chicks can walk the first day they hatch, and can fly within 56-100 days. Juveniles stay with their parents until the next breeding season. When the family returns to the breeding grounds, juveniles will either leave voluntarily or be driven off by the adults. The newly independent juveniles gather in non-breeding flocks, and usually begin trying to form their own pairs by the end of their second year. They are able to breed at three years.
Diet in the Wild: Seeds, grasses, insects, and other small animals such as frogs, lizards, and crabs.
Diet in the Zoo: Crane diet; with lettuce, apples, and bird of prey diet as enrichment.
General Information: The two species of crowned cranes are the only cranes able to perch in trees. They have a long, prehensile hind toe called a hallux that allows them to grasp tree limbs. Crowned cranes forage by stamping their feet to disturb insects and other prey, and then capture prey with quick pecks with their beaks. They may also follow cattle or other grazing animals to take advantage of prey disturbed by the grazers. Crowned cranes will share feeding sites with a variety of other birds, but they are quick to defend the areas around their nest, sometimes even chasing off animals as large as cattle. They spend the daylight hours foraging, resting, preening, feeding their young in the breeding season, and socializing within large flocks in the non-breeding season. At night, breeding cranes stand guard over their nests, or roost in large flocks in the non-breeding season. Flocks can include more than 100 birds. Their voice is a low-pitched, trumpet-like call that is not as loud as the calls of other crane species. Crowned cranes perform some of the most energetic dances of all the cranes, bobbing their heads up and down, bowing, spreading their wings, leaping and flapping their wings, and then often landing and circling one another. Dancing seems to be contagious – once one pair starts, the activity can spread quickly through the flock. Established pairs have less need to dance to cement bonds than new or younger pairs. Like many other cranes, the crowned crane is revered by the local people in many parts of its range. It is the national bird of Uganda.
Conservation Status: Although populations of crowned cranes have declined since the 1980’s, this is still the most abundant African crane and it is not in any immediate danger. This species adapts well to agricultural areas and breeds easily in captivity. The specie is listed on CITES appendix ll.
Predators: Humans – crowned cranes are hunted in some areas, while cultural tradition protects them in other parts of their range.
A Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. 1985. J.G. Williams and N. Arlott. Collins, London. pp. 68-69.
Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 3. 1996. Ed. J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. pp. 60-81, 83.