Serengeti crowns

The Serengeti has many crowns. It is crowned as one of the most spectacular places on earth to see wildlife. It is also a place where you will see wildly beautiful creatures with golden crowns. These crowns of golden feathers adorn each Grey crowned crane’s head. While many birds have crests only two species have a crown of splayed golden feathers.

“Perhaps more than any other living creatures, cranes evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water and air upon which their species – and ours, too, though we learn it very late – must ultimately depend for survival.” ~ Peter Matthiessen

Cranes make up the family, Gruidae. They are large, long-legged and long-necked birds in the group Gruiformes. There are fifteen species of crane in four genera, but only three, that I know of , are classified as crowned cranes, the Grey and Black crowned cranes found in Africa and the Red-crowned crane in found in Japan.

I have had a special affection for the Grey crowned crane since my childhood. Multi-generational family friends, the Condy’s used to live down the valley from us in Harare, Zimbabwe. John Condy was the chief wildlife vet for the Zimbabwean Department of Veterinary Services at that time and his job regularly took him into the Zimbabwean wilds. On his wildlife ventures John would come across animals and birds which needed rescuing. Occasionally, John would bring an orphaned or injured animal or bird to be cared for at the family home in Harare. The Condys had a menagerie which ranged from a black rhino calf to an African rock python, and from African hawk-eagles to Grey crowned cranes. As a child I have vivid memories of two Grey crowned cranes striding around the Condy’s garden giving their characteristic “howuun” call.

“I wish to live a life that causes my soul to dance inside my body.”~ Dele Olanubi

I was entranced by the exquisite beauty of that pair of Grey crowned cranes, called Henry and Peebles, strutting around the Condy’s garden in Harare, Zimbabwe back in the the 1960s. To this day I remain intrigued by the beauty and elegance of the Grey crowned crane. To me, mother nature has put together such a provocative, eclectic mixture of colours and textures in one bird.

Its bland ornithological description, Grey crowned crane, grossly understates this crane’s beauty. It has many (not fifty) shades of grey, to which is added facial rouge, a velvet black forehead, sea blue eyes and a golden crown.

The general impression of size and shape (GISS) of a Grey crowned crane is similar to the Black Crowned Crane. The Grey crowned crane has grey neck feathers while the Black crowned crane has charcoal grey black coloured neck feathers. The Grey crowned crane has the red skin patches on the side of its head and on its throat whereas the Black crown crane’s red skin patches are much smaller. The Grey crowned crane has pure white cheek patches where the Black crowned crane’s cheek patches are mostly pink with a white patch at the top of the cheek.

There is much about cranes which make them intriguing subjects. They are some of the tallest and most stately of all flying birds. They have striking plumage, and they dance. They also have a unique and one of the most evocative calls among birds with only Ground hornbills coming close.

“When we hear the crane’s call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” ~ Aldo Leopold

One distinguishing characteristic between cranes and herons or egrets is that cranes fly with the neck extended straight ahead, while herons and egrets fly with the head held back towards the body. This is for longitudinal balance. The Grey crowned crane has powerful flight with strong and steady wing beats , and is adept at using thermals. Being a large bird it has to run before taking to flight.

All cranes participate in spectacular dance routines involving head-bobbing, wing-fluttering, leaps and deep bows, running with wings flapping even for short, low flights.

Among adults, these elaborate dances serve as courtship rituals to attract mates. For young birds, dancing helps develop physical and social skills. Spontaneous dancing can occur anytime. In a flock of cranes, if one bird starts dancing, often all the others join in.

“Magic birds were dancing in the mystic marsh. The grass swayed with them, and the shallow waters, and the earth fluttered under them. The earth was dancing with the cranes, and the low sun, and the wind and sky.” ~ Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Another characteristic that sets cranes apart from herons and egrets is that many crane species have bright-red thick skin with an irregular surface covering parts of their head and neck.

Most species of crane have some areas of bare skin on the face but there are two exceptions, the Blue Crane and Demoiselle Crane. It is thought that this skin is used in communication with other cranes, and can be expanded by contracting and relaxing muscles, and change the intensity of colour. Feathers on the head can also be moved and erected.

Cranes are diurnal birds. Their sociability varies by season. During the breeding season, they are territorial and usually remain within their territory. Out of the breeding season, they tend to be gregarious, forming large flocks to roost, socialise, and, in some species to feed.

The great difficulty, from a photographic point of view, is that cranes usually will not let you get close to them.

Like many terrestrial avians, such as bustards and secretary birds, cranes tend to walk away from you when you are trying to photograph them. It is only on an unique occasion when they are down at a waterhole that you may get special photographic access.

The wings of the Grey crowned crane are long and broad, ideal for long flights and catching thermals. The feathers at the wing tips of most birds that soar over land separate both horizontally and vertically in flight to form slotted tips. Research has shown that the slotted primary feathers at the wing tips of soaring birds reduce induced drag. The separated tip feathers act as winglets and increase the span factor of the wings. ( Source: Journal of Experimental Biology: Article on Gliding Birds by V.A. Tucker).

“I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.” ~ Sadako Sasaki

One of the things which has always intrigued me about the Grey crowned crane is that it is particularly photogenic, in an artistic way. It is a riot of colours shapes and textures.

The artistic palette with a muted background – perfect!

” You lure us in from afar with your worldly trumpeting call. Once our eyes fall upon you, the spell is cast. We are mesmerised by your beauty and exquisite golden crown. Then, to seal our attention, the bewitching starts with your glorious dance.”~ Mike Haworth

In the Serengeti you will often see Grey crowned cranes foraging in the grasslands. Occasionally we can even get clear backgrounds when they are down at a waterhole. Grey crowned cranes are usually found in open habitats but seem to prefer grasslands near water.

The Black and Grey crowned cranes are the only species of cranes able to perch in trees because of their long hind toe which enables them to grasp the branches. These cranes are often seen roosting in trees.

The Grey crowned crane’s bill is relatively short and grey, and the legs are black. They have long legs for wading through the grasses. Their feet are large, yet slender, adapted for balance rather than defence, or grasping.

The Grey crowned crane is the smallest in the crane family. It stands just over one metre tall whereas the Sarus Crane is the largest standing 1.8 metres tall. The Grey crowned crane has a two metre wing span. These wings have white covets, black primary wing feathers and chestnut secondaries with golden tertial plumes, all of which create an elegant appearance.

Crowned cranes stomp their feet as they walk across the grasslands. This flushes out insects and other potential prey which the cranes quickly catches and eats. These cranes are omnivores, eating plants, stripping seeds off grass stems. They will also feed on grain, insects, frogs, worms, snakes, small fish and the eggs of aquatic animals.

All cranes are noted for their loud calls that can be heard over a kilometre away. The crowned Crane has a booming call which it creates by inflating its red gular sac. Cranes have a long convoluted trachea that makes a loop within the sternum. This tracheal shape, similar to some brass musical instruments such as the trombone, makes it possible for cranes to produce a loud bugling call. Cranes share this tracheal characteristic only with swans.

The crowned cranes have shorter coiled trachea which produce the trumpeting. Their characteristic honking sound is quite different to the trumpeting of other crane species. The unique “unison call” of a mated pair of crowned cranes announces their presence in occupied territories and warns other birds away. The Grey Crowned Crane utters a trumpeting flight call “may hem” and low-pitched honks “howuum howuum” during the breeding season and the displays.

The male is the principal defender of the pair, calling a loud warning to other cranes in his territory. The male is also slightly larger than the female and both sexes have similar colouring.

A Grey crowned crane only reaches sexual maturity after about three years. The full adult eye color and face and neck coloration are not reached until 20–24 months old. The juvenile is grey overall with brown crown and nape. The body is grey to brown. The eyes are brown. The cheeks are feathered.

This was a pair of Grey crowned cranes displaying to each other at the Musira dam with two pairs of White-faced whistling ducks swimming away from the dance area. We managed to get surprisingly close to these cranes by sitting quietly for an extended period. They relaxed and started to walk along the edge of the dam and even displayed right in front of us.

According to Birdlife, the global population of grey crowned cranes is estimated to be between 17,700 and 22,300 individuals. In 2012 it was uplisted from vulnerable to endangered by the IUCN due to habitat loss and poaching for the captive trade market.

Black Crowned Cranes are found in eastern Africa, centered in Senegal and Gambia. There is a large population throughout Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, with separate populations in Chad and Cameroon. Most populations are found within the Sahel region of northern Africa. Grey crowned cranes are found from Kenya down to southern Africa. The Grey crowned crane is found in East and southern Africa, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya right down to South Africa

“Conservation is sometimes perceived as stopping everything cold, as holding whooping cranes in higher esteem than people. It is up to science to spread the understanding that the choice is not between wild places or people, it is between a rich or an impoverished existence for Man.” ~ Thomas Lovejoy

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

8 thoughts on “Serengeti crowns

  1. Cock full of information, Mike, and truly evocative images. Cranes are so elusive, I can only guess how many, many hours it took to create this portfolio. Thank you for posting it. . 🙏

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