CRANES Gruidae
The Cranes are a fairly small (15 species) family of large impressive birds of open country: marsh, tundra, and grasslands that go on forever. They are evocative of the wild, open places left on earth. As those places become fewer and smaller, it is not a surprise that 9 species (60% of all crane species) are declining and considered endangered, threatened, or vulnerable (Archibald & Meine 1996). Those species that still remain reasonably common can still be spectacular, like this adult and juvenal Gray Crowned Crane (left) in the grasslands of east Africa.
Ten of 15 cranes are in the genus Grus: the tall, stately, and retiring cranes of our dreams. The rarest is the huge Whooping Crane (right, in a beautiful shot © Greg W. Lasley), breeding in one park in remote central Canada and migrating each winter to the Texas coast at Aransas NWR. The world population was recently counted at 183 birds, and the good news is that this is almost twice what is was two decades ago. (Birdlife International 2000). Most of the Grus cranes are highly migratory, and the sight of a flight of cranes overhead can be awe inspiring. The photo (below) is of Sandhill Cranes, the only other New World species.
In Asia, there are five species of endangered Grus cranes that make long flights south: Siberian G. leucogeranus, White-naped G. vipio, Hooded G. monacha, Red-crowned (Japanese) G. japonensis, and Black-necked G. nigricollis. The Eurasian (Common) Crane G. grus is not endangered but also makes long migratory flights.
The champion distance migrant, and the most endangered of all cranes, is the huge, red-faced Siberian Crane (left; in a photo © Bhoulu Khan). Its estimated numbers are higher than Whooping (perhaps 2500 birds; Birdlife International 2000) but it is the crane most dependent on remote taiga marshes without any human disturbance. It has three widely separated populations: the western, which winters in Iran and is virtually extinct; the central, which winters at Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India (where this photo was taken) but has declined from several hundreds in the 1960s to less than ten today; and the eastern, which winters along the middle Yangtze River in s. China. 

The photo of these two Siberian Cranes is by my friend Bhoulu Khan, now the head forester at Keoladeo Ghana reserve, known as Bharatpur, a series of artificial marshes in the plains of India where these birds used to winter regularly but are now more hit-and-miss as these population plummets to near-extinction. The cranes travel in very small groups over a route of 3100 miles; as Matthiessen (2001) explains, the loss of this population would be the loss of millions of years of knowledge. Only adult wild cranes can teach young how to make this incredible journey.

On our visit there in March 2001, we were already too late for the two Siberian Cranes that had wintered that year, but Bhoulu Khan put up a bed sheet outside on the patio and showed us his amazing photos of the park, including this shot. To my personal amazement, Bhoulo is the son of the former head cook at the rest house at Bharatpur, where I had stayed 23 years before. It was his father that first served me real Indian food, sparking a life-long interest in that vegetarian cuisine! [and, in a longer story I can't tell now, it is because of Indian food that I met my wife.....]

Cranes have many fascinating features. They tend to mate for life and can be tenacious in defense of their pair bond. Their stereotypic head-bowing and back-arching display, and bugled calls, cement these bonds. Better yet, they dance! As the displays pick up often on the wintering grounds they perform ballet leaps of extraordinary beauty. The Red-crowned Cranes wintering in Japan are especially famous for their "dances in the snow."

Each species of crane has much history and many stories. Fortunately for us, these are now woven together in Peter Matthiessen's marvelous book The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes (2001). I highly recommend it as an insightful and powerful wildlife read. The book is illustrated with the art of Robert Bateman, known best for his wonderful wildlife panoramas. Yet, in this book, the paintings are close-ups and not the "landscapes-with-birds" I had hoped to find. To atone for that slightly, I've put together below a short series of "crane panoramas" that may just capture, in photographic form, a bit of the remarkable combination of crane-and-landscape that together makes cranes such powerful and symbolic birds......

Sandhills Cranes (above) wintering on Texas grasslands (photo © Greg W. Lasley), red crowns glistening in the cold morning sun.....
Eurasian (Common) Cranes (above) wintering on a shallow Indian lake, huddled in a dense pack for best vigilance in the center of a wonderland of waterfowl....
Demoiselle Cranes (above) stopping in spring migration in the dry Great Indian desert, elegantly searching for a bit of sustenance in the barren earth....
and a pair of Brolga, with nearly full-grown youngster (above), staring out over their domain: an expanse of a southern New Guinea seasonal wetland.

Cranes have a mystical hold on many people. I am influenced by this power. They do speak to me of vast wilderness, even though these days they are mostly encountered in agricultural stubble next to a central California freeway.  But they belong to the wild. I remember my first crane (and this is a true story): when I was only two (2) years old. We lived overlooking a large lake. One early morning my father told me there was a crane standing on the end of the dock below our house. It was the first bird I ever identified..... alas, of course, I realized many years later that it had been a Great Blue Heron (ahem...). But, in its own quirky way, you might say that it was a "crane" that got me into birding......

Photos: The adult and young Gray Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum were foraging in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, in Aug 2002. Gray W. Lasley photographed the Whooping Crane Grus americana in Aransas NWR, Texas, on 19 Feb 2001; he also shot the group of Sandhill CranesG. canadensis in Kennedy Co., Texas, on 17 Feb 2000. My flight shot of Sandhill Cranes is from a crane refuge on Woodbridge Road, near Stockton, California, on 13 Oct 2001. Bhoulu Khan captured the two Siberian Crane G. leucogeranus at Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India. The Eurasian (Common) Cranes G. grus were at Sultanpur Jheel, n. India, in March 2001. The small flock of Demoiselle Crane Anthropoidea virgo were encountered in the Great Indian Desert, east of Jaisalmar in w. Rajasthan, India, in March 2001. The Brolga Grus rubicunda were photographed in Wasur Nat'l Park, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, in southern New Guinea, on 10 Aug 1004. All photos © 2003 Don Roberson, except those attributed to Greg W. Lasley and to Bhoulu Khan, who holds those copyrights and which are used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic notes:

Family Book: HHH (out of 5 possible)
Walkinshaw, Lawrence H. 1973. Cranes of the World. Winchester Press, New York.

This was quite a nice book at one time, but is now badly dated. Crane populations have tumbled seriously since the 1970s, and efforts to save many of them didn't get underway until the 1980s-1990s (Whooping Crane aside). A tremendous amount of information not available back then is now known. This is now out-of-print. Today, a full introduction to the family, with exceptional photos, is in the Handbook of the Birds of the World series (Archibald & Meine 1996).
Family Book: HHHH (out of 5 possible)
Matthiessen, Peter. 2001. The Bird of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. North Point Press, New York.
This is not at all a "family book" in any usual sense. It doesn't have range maps beyond very generic end-sheets; it has not detailed description; and the discussion of breeding biology is anecdotal. Indeed, the entire book is a travelogue of the author's efforts to observe all the cranes in the world, and learn of their habitat and their needs, and it reads like a novel. Matthiessen is a world renown writer; I've read many of his books and I may choose this as the best of them. Yes, it doesn't have the deep introspective angle of The Snow Leopard, but the excitement and wonder in tracking down the cranes in the most remote corners of the planet shines through gloriously. I just loved the "read" of it.
    Intermixed with good writing are a tremendous numbers of facts about each of the cranes their history, their lore, their protectors, and their future. One gets a really good feel for the subject. Matthiessen encounters various friends and acquaintances of mine as he travels (e.g., Victor Emanuel, Bhoulo Khan, Raj Singh) and others I wish I knew (e.g., George Archibald, the world's greatest authority and protector of cranes). There is an astonishing amount of actual information in these 330 pages (including some very useful footnotes).
    The novel-like book is illustrated by Robert Bateman. I have long considered Bateman among my favorite bird artists, but what I have admired most are his "landscapes with birds." Cranes would be perfect for such a treatment, but (perhaps due to the rush to publish) none of them appear here (his Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus painting is the closest he comes in this book). Rather, we have close-ups of the heads of all species, and we have close-up vignettes of all the cranes often wreathed in mists with only bits of landscape. This is not classic Bateman; I admit to being disappointed. The art is just fine and looks accurate, but it is not nearly as evocative as his artistry usually is to me.
Literature cited:
Archibald, G.W., and C.D. Meine. 1996. Family Gruidae (Cranes), pp. 60-89 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona & Cambridge, U.K., Lynx Edicions & Birdlife International.



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