Tan-tan-tara! It seems fitting that a trumpet fanfare should herald the arrival of this most regal-looking bird. To be honest, the trumpet sounds a little out of tune – more Scooby Doo than Miles Davis. But that deep, honking bugle nonetheless demands attention. And the stately flypast that follows is undeniably eye-catching: with outstretched necks, trailing legs and broad wings beating slow and steady.
You won’t need much help to identify a crowned crane: at one-metre tall, its leggy elegance and striking markings make it unmistakable even from afar. But binoculars do allow a better appreciation of its unique charms. Those white wing panels flash like semaphore signals when the bird takes flight. And those head decorations seem almost de trop, with black-and-white eye patches, dangling red wattle and perfectly hemispherical crown of golden feathers on top. It’s the sort of thing a child might produce if given a set of felt-tips and asked to design a tropical bird.
It’s small wonder, then, that this striking bird has many admirers – and, indeed, the crowned crane is Uganda’s national emblem, standing proud in the middle of its national flag. To be precise, the species that enjoys this honour is the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), which occurs not only in Uganda but south through east and central Africa all the way to eastern South Africa. Its close relative, the black crowned crane (Balearica pavonina), occurs further north, from Sudan west to Senegal. The two were once thought to be different races of the same species until taxonomists intervened.
Irrespective of the species, the appeal of these birds is as much in their performance as their appearance. Crowned cranes, like all the world’s 16 crane species, flaunt their finery in spectacular dance-offs. Pairs mate for life and regularly reinforce their bonds through ritualised leaping and bowing displays, with wings raised and bugling accompaniment. The show is not confined to the mating season: it kicks off whenever the mood takes them.
Crowned cranes inhabit open habitats, using those long legs to stalk the grass in search of a variety of foods, from grains and (in cultivated areas) ground nuts, to insects, worms and small reptiles. They often feed around grazing mammals, snapping up whatever the hooves might disturb.
For breeding, they prefer marshy areas, building a nest platform on the ground, often surrounded by water and screened by taller vegetation. The female lays two to six eggs, which hatch after 28–31 days. The chicks hit the ground running, but may stay with their parents for up to three months.
Though often seen in pairs when out foraging, crowned cranes also gather in larger numbers – sometimes up to 150 – at their roosts. The bugling then crescendos to quite a chorus as the flock renew greetings and take flight together. Good spots to catch such gatherings include Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater and Zambia’s Luangwa National Park – especially around the Salt Springs area. This species is unique among the world’s cranes in having a gripping hind toe that allows it to roost in trees.
Unfortunately, wearing a crown is no guarantee of security. Crowned cranes may be a national emblem in Uganda but they are in steep decline throughout their range, threatened by pesticides, drainage and the over-grazing of their grasslands.
In 2012, the IUCN upgraded the status of both species from Vulnerable to Endangered. Although they remain a reasonably common sight on safari, it will take concerted conservation to ensure that their trumpet fanfare does not become the last post.
(Images by Mike Unwin)
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.