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What is a Red-Crowned Crane?

R. Britton
R. Britton

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is unique about the Red-Crowned Crane?

The Red-Crowned Crane, also known as the Japanese crane or Manchurian crane, is unique for its striking appearance with a bright red patch on top of its head. It is revered in Asian cultures as a symbol of luck, longevity, and fidelity. This species is also one of the rarest cranes, making it particularly special.

Where can Red-Crowned Cranes be found in the wild?

Red-Crowned Cranes are primarily found in East Asia, with the majority residing in wetlands and marshes in Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula. They are migratory birds, with some populations moving to southeastern Russia during the breeding season. Their habitat choice is crucial for their survival and breeding.

What do Red-Crowned Cranes eat?

Red-Crowned Cranes have a varied diet that includes insects, fish, amphibians, and plants. They forage in wetlands, using their long bills to probe for food. During the winter, they may also feed on grains in agricultural fields. Their diet is adaptable depending on the availability of food sources in their habitat.

How do Red-Crowned Cranes mate and reproduce?

Red-Crowned Cranes are known for their elaborate courtship dances, which include synchronized movements, calls, and leaps. They are monogamous birds, often forming lifelong pairs. The breeding season typically begins in April or May, with females laying one to three eggs. Both parents share incubation duties over a period of about 30 days.

What is the conservation status of the Red-Crowned Crane?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Red-Crowned Crane is classified as Endangered. Threats to their survival include habitat loss due to human development, environmental pollution, and climate change. Conservation efforts are in place to protect their habitats and ensure the species' survival.

How long do Red-Crowned Cranes live?

Red-Crowned Cranes are among the longest-lived bird species, with a lifespan that can exceed 30 years in the wild. In captivity, with optimal care, they can live up to 70 years. Their longevity contributes to their cultural significance as symbols of longevity in many East Asian cultures.

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