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What is a Red-Crowned Crane?

By R. Britton
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The red-crowned crane is a very large omnivorous bird. The scientific name of this species is Grus japonensis and it is commonly known as the Japanese crane. Thought to be the heaviest crane in the world, this bird has a very long lifespan. It is critically endangered with a very small geographic range.

Reaching 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, this bird has a wingspan of around 8 feet (2.5 meters) and can weigh up to 30 pounds (14 kilograms). This bird is one of the white crane species, having predominantly white plumage. The red-crowned crane has black patches on the head and neck along with a very distinctive area of bare, vivid red skin on the crown which makes it easily identifiable. In captivity, the red-crowned crane can exceed 70 years of age and is thought to live to a similar age in the wild.

This species is omnivorous and has a wide and varied diet. Insects, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, small mammals, and reptiles make up a large portion of the diet. When available, the birds will eat seeds, grains, and green plant matter. Their large size means red-crowned cranes must consume massive quantities of small food items to sustain themselves.

Native to isolated parts of Japan and China, the red-crowned crane has suffered from localized extinction in many areas of its original native range. Extremely endangered, there are only two known wild populations remaining, numbering just 1,500. This species has suffered a number of major disasters and continues to face serious threats.

Huge numbers of birds were killed during the Second World War and have been ruthlessly overhunted for sport and trophies. A particularly harsh winter during the 1950s saw the already fragile population decline further as temperatures plummeted, making food scarce, and resulting in large numbers of birds dying from starvation and exposure. It is reported that a farmer found what is widely believed to be some of the very last red-crowned cranes close to death on his land during this extreme winter. There were allegedly just 25 birds seeking warmth and comfort from a hot spring in a field. The farmer supposedly took pity on the birds and provided them with food and shelter until they recovered and temperatures began to rise.

One of the biggest continued threats to these birds is habitat loss. As the wetlands are drained and developed for human expansion, the very small remaining range for the red-crowned crane shrinks, meaning that the birds have nowhere to feed and live. After many years of fierce debate and campaigns, conservation projects are finally being put into place, with a long-term goal of increasing the numbers of the red-crowned crane to self-sustaining levels.

Refuges and feeding stations have been set up across the range of these birds, and there are plans to introduce a captive-bred variant into a suitable habitat. Conservationists are particularly keen to reestablish colonies of captive birds in areas where this species were known to have previously lived. There are around 700 birds in captivity around the world; most of these are involved in breeding projects.

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