Colours of Wildlife: Wattled Crane

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Wattled 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!"

Wattled Crane by Willem.

Having brought you the Crowned Crane last time, let me show you yet another spectacular crane species of South Africa. This is the Wattled Crane, Grus carunculatus. It's scientific name simply means 'wattled crane'! It is the only crane species in the world to have such wattles – both male and female have the pendulous wattles dangling down below their cheeks. The front edge of each wattle is bare, warty and pink, but the rear portion is covered in soft, white feathers like the rest of the crane's head and neck. There is also naked, warty skin around the base of the bill and in front of the crane's eye. Adults also have a dark grey 'cap' on top of their heads. Their white necks contrast with their dark grey bodies. The feathers on their wings are a bit lighter grey, and they have long, pointed plumes at the rear of their wings that lie over their tails. The wattled crane is the biggest crane species in Africa, standing 4'/1.2 m tall, or more. It is the most conventional of South Africa's cranes, that is to say the closest in appearance to the American, Eurasian and Australian crane species, despite its weird wattles.

A Very Threatened Crane

It is an unfortunate fact that there are several species of crane, such interesting and elegant birds, that are currently threatened with extinction. On the African continent, the wattled crane is the most seriously endangered crane species. Its total population is about 7500 birds at present, most of them in south-Central Africa, with outlying populations in Ethiopia and Southern Africa. The largest population at the moment is in Zambia. In South Africa there are only about 300 birds in total.

In South Africa, wattled cranes have very specific habitat needs. They occur in high-lying wetland regions, most often in places called 'sponges'. These are inundated with water year-round; they collect water from the high catchment areas which the substrate, peaty and rich in organic material, absorbs like a sponge and hold onto even in the relatively dry autumn and winter. Such wetlands are rare in South Africa and many have already been destroyed by human development. In addition to the wetlands, the cranes also feed in surrounding grasslands and sometimes woodlands. In tropical regions, they also make use of seasonally inundated floodplains.

Furthermore, the cranes breed out in the open in these wetlands, building their low mound-nests from vegetation to raise them above the water level. Because the adult cranes are very conspicuous, and visible from a long distance away amidst the reeds and sedges, they tend to be extremely wary and will leave their nests if they spot a predator a long way off. They also leave their nests if approached by humans. They will try to creep away inconspicuously, keeping as low as possible. Too much activity around their nests can easily cause them to abandon their eggs.

Like most cranes, wattled cranes don't lay many eggs. In South Africa, most of the time they only lay a single egg. Further north they occasionally lay two. The crane hatching from the egg looks quite different from its parents, having a relatively shorter neck and bill, and covered in a dense, greyish-brown down. The crane chick can walk around immediately, and will leave the nest with its parents immediately. They still take care of it, protecting it and feeding it and teaching it to find food. For a while they will return to the nest at night, where the parents will brood the chick to keep it warm (nights can get quite cold in these highland regions). Even though the chick becomes capable of flying at the age of fifteen to eighteen weeks, it still needs parental care – indeed, wattled crane chicks are tended by their parents for ten to twenty-one months.

The long period of intensive care that a single wattled crane chick needs, means that adults cannot breed very frequently. On average, they breed once every fourteen months. But not every breeding attempt is successful. They can actually breed at any time of the year, so that there are at all times some wattled cranes incubating eggs, others tending small chicks, yet others with chicks almost fully grown, and others still caring for their already adult chicks.

To offset their slow breeding rate, wattled cranes live quite long, four decades or more, and can breed up until the ends of their lives. But they are vulnerable to anything that disrupts their breeding cycles. On average, they only raise 0.6 babies per couple per year.

In its lifestyle, this is a rather typical crane species. It is omnivorous, eating plant roots, rhizomes, tubers, and seeds, and also animal foods like small frogs, snails, crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles. It probes the soil and catches these with its long bill. It wades in shallow water but also feeds much of the time on dry land. Couples usually forage and move around together. In the breeding season, like all other cranes, the males and females display to each other with trumpeting calls (but calling much less frequently than other cranes), dancing and posing. Part of the display involves throwing bits of vegetation into the air using their bills. Pairs stay together for life. Wattled cranes sometimes occur in pairs, sometimes form small groups or casual flocks. In South Africa they don't move around much, but elsewhere in Africa, they may move seasonally to keep up with the rains.

The conservation of the wattled crane is vitally dependent upon the habitat of this species being conserved, kept pristine and as free as possible from human disturbances.

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