The elegant Grey crowned crane is one of Africa’s most majestic and beautiful birds. It is the national symbol and the national bird of Uganda. The name is due to its yellow crown of feathers, tipped with black. This crane moves gracefully in a most stately manner with a very dignified gait. In flight it is beautiful, using slow down strokes followed by quick upward strokes of its wings.
The Grey crowned crane lives in eastern and southern Africa, from Kenya and Uganda to South Africa and Zimbabwe, frequenting wetlands, savannahs, open grasslands, and cultivated areas. In parts of East Africa, it occurs in modified habitats like pastures, croplands, and other irrigated areas, while in South Africa, it is found in marshes, grasslands, savannahs, and cultivated fields.
Grey crowned cranes are diurnal birds that spend their days foraging in grassland and areas of cultivation, pecking rapidly to reach the food. They are very territorial with regard to nesting sites; however, as regards foraging sites, no observations have been made of a territorial display. These birds are gregarious outside of the breeding season, roosting together in trees or water. Flocks may include 30-150 individuals. Outside the breeding season, mates will preen one another to strengthen their bond, and perform dances as well. These birds are non-migratory, moving locally and seasonally according to food sources, availability of nest sites, and the rains. Chicks will make a sharp shrill “peeep” when communicating with their parents, who will reply with a “purring” sound. “Oouuw” and “ya-oou-goo-lung” can also be made.
Grey crowned cranes are omnivores. They eat plant matter, including fresh parts of grasses, seed heads of sedges, and insects such as grasshoppers, locusts and crickets, and worms, lizards, frogs, and crabs.
Grey crowned cranes are monogamous and mate for life. During the breeding season, these birds perform beautiful displays: dancing, bowing, running, and jumping while making low booming calls that inflate their gular sacs. The calls are made while their head is lowered to shoulder level. Varying with the rains, the breeding season generally peaks from December to February. The pair selects the nest site, within their territory, and will give unison calls from it. They build their nest together. The nest is often placed on the edge of the wetland, rarely in a tree, and hidden in the dense aquatic vegetation. The female lays 1-4 eggs and both parents incubate them for about 50-60 days. Chicks are precocial, can run as soon as they hatch, and fledge in 56-100 days. Once they are fully grown and independent, chicks of different sexes will separate from their parents to start their own family. They reach reproductive maturity at about 3 years of age.
Populations of Grey crowned cranes are rapidly declining, due to degradation of habitat by human development, changes as a result of drought in several regions, the loss of breeding areas from overgrazing and the drainage of wetlands, and also the pet trade, egg collecting, use of pesticides and hunting. Pesticides also kill insects that these birds may otherwise eat.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Grey crowned crane population size is around 26,500-49,999 individuals, including 17,700-22,300 mature individuals. The largest populations are thought to be in Kenya (where there were 17,000-20,000 birds in 2004), Uganda (13,000-20,000 birds), the Democratic Republic of Congo (about 5,000 birds), and South Africa with 4,000-5,000 birds. Overall, currently, gray crowned cranes are classified as Endangered (EN) and their numbers today are decreasing.
Seeds are a big part of the Grey crowned crane’s diet, so they are probably an important disperser of seeds.