Southern Crowned Crane
Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
This time I have for you surely one of the loveliest of all South Africa's bird species! It is a Southern Crowned Crane, Balearica regolurum. There is another species, the Northern Crowned Crane, Balearica pavonina, which occurs farther north in Africa and is much darker in colour, but otherwise very similar. Crowned cranes are flamboyant, almost comical, in their appearance, with their big crests that look like clumps of straws stuck into the backs of their heads! They also have brightly coloured bare skin on their faces, and long, golden plumes over the backs of their wings. The male and female look alike. In Afrikaans we call the species 'mahem' because their calls sound like 'ma-hem' or 'may-hem'!
Regular readers of this column will know that I am much into the evolutionary history of the critters of planet Earth. Life has existed, as far as science knows, for thousands of millions of years, and what we have today is just a tiny snapshot of what is happening at one specific moment. Cranes are fascinating birds and have a long evolutionary history, fossils of them being known from forty million years ago. Most modern cranes are tall, long-legged, long-billed birds that stalk around in grasslands or wetlands. They include the tallest of flying birds, a few species from Asia and Australia reaching a height of around 6'/183 cm. Most cranes also have very long tracheas or windpipes, with complicated folds in them, which they use for uttering their loud, trumpeting calls.
Crowned cranes are different, though. They are not so tall, standing only a bit more than a metre/yard to the tops of their crowns. While most cranes are entirely ground-living, crowned cranes sometimes perch in trees, even having been noted breeding in trees on occasion. They don't have the lengthened windpipes with the folds, and while their calls are quite resonant, they don't have the same loud, trumpeting quality. But in their plumage and facial adornments, they are more showy than other cranes. It is thought that they are a tropical remnant of the ancestors of the other cranes, or at least, they remain similar in many respects to those ancestors. Crowned cranes have remained in Africa, while the other crane genera have all moved out to colonize Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. The two other 'conventional' crane species in Africa (the blue crane and the wattled crane, which I will treat in detail here soon) also are a bit different from their relatives in the rest of the world, but not as much as the crowned cranes.
Today crowned cranes are very popular in zoos and bird parks. They become very tame and will stay around without flying away, making it possible to keep them out in the open. In the wild, they are social, sometimes forming flocks of as many as a hundred birds. The flock members display to each other with dancing, head bobbing and wing spreading displays, showing off their crowns and wing plumes. They also call to each other. They are mostly associated with cool, high-lying wetland regions, but also feed in grassland, open savannah and agricultural fields. Like other cranes, they are omnivorous, taking plant foods as well as small animals. They often stamp their feet as they walk about to scare little critters into revealing themselves.
During the breeding season, crowned craned couples move away from the flocks to build solitary nests, mounds of grass built up over soggy ground. The male and female display to each other by dancing, bowing and jumping at each other, and utter booming calls deeper and different from their typical 'ma-hem' calls, inflating the red gular sacs below their throats to amplify the calls. They lay more eggs than other cranes, up to four per clutch, and sometimes manage to raise three chicks to adulthood. The adults will try to distract predators from their chicks, by acting as if they have broken wings, and leading the predators as far away as they can.
At the moment, crowned cranes are fairly secure, although their continued survival depends on their habitat being protected. They feature in many zoos, as I've said. I see them around my town from time to time, although 'technically' they don't occur as wild birds here, these probably being birds associated with local aviaries and animal parks. The species occurs in the wild from southeastern South Africa as far north as Uganda and Kenya.