The White-naped crane is the only species of crane with pinkish legs and a neck that is white and dark gray striped. Its hind neck and nape are white, surrounded by a large reddish face patch. The plumage of the adult is dark gray, the wings and wing coverts being silvery gray. Both genders look the same, although in breeding pairs the males are usually slightly larger. Like other species of crane, the White-naped crane engages in beautiful courtship displays with elaborate calls.
These cranes breed in northeastern China, northeastern Mongolia, and adjacent parts of southeastern Russia. Individuals in the western part of the breeding range will migrate south through China, stopping to rest at the Yellow River delta, then wintering in wetlands of the middle Yangtze River valley. Overwintering areas include the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea, as well as the Japanese island Kyushu, where there is an artificial feeding station outside the city of Izumi which they heavily rely upon. These birds prefer shallow wetlands or wet meadows within broad river valleys, near lake edges, and within lowland steppes or areas that are mixed forest-steppe. They feed nest, and roost in shallow wetlands and along the edges of wetlands, foraging in the adjacent grasslands or farmlands. While migrating and at their wintering grounds, they will use rice paddies, agricultural fields, mudflats, and other wetlands.
The White-naped crane is a social bird and is often found alongside other crane species within their range, such as Red-crowned, Hooded, Eurasian and Demoiselle cranes. A White-naped crane is diurnal and when foraging it digs into the soil with its long bill, to reach tubers and roots. This species is fairly territorial when digging and feeding. As with all cranes species, these cranes are often observed ‘dancing’: flapping their wings, tossing sticks and grass, jumping, running and bowing. These actions are part of courtship, but are also thought to relieve tension and reduce aggression. White-naped cranes start a flight by running along the ground, and taking off into the wind, quickly gaining speed, and lifting into the air, to fly with outstretched necks, while the legs trail behind. They use thermal currents whenever possible. They fly in a V formation during migration. They make high-pitched, penetrating calls.
This species is monogamous, establishing a long-term pair bond that may last its lifetime. They arrive at the breeding grounds in April, when mates find each other by means of an extended series of coordinated calls. The female initiates the display and then they both extend their necks with their head and bill upwards. The male usually gives one call while the female gives two. They perform “dances” by wing-flapping, running and bowing, and tossing plant material in the air, as other cranes do. They go back to the nesting sites after re-establishing their pair-bonds, and build their nest in open wetland. These birds breed in the spring and lay in April to May. The nest is in open wetland on the ground. 2 eggs are laid, two to three days apart. Incubation is for one month, by both adults. They strongly defend their nest, as well as the surroundings near the nest. Both parents feed the chicks, fledge when they are about 70-75 days old. They reach maturity at two-three years.
These birds are threatened by loss of habitat from the drainage of wetland for the expansion of agriculture. Over-grazing and human disturbance threatens breeding grounds in Mongolia. Steppe fires destroy nesting sites and may decimate a colony. The main threat is human development on breeding grounds.
According to the IUCN Red List the total White-naped crane population size is 6,250-6,750 individuals, including 3,700-4,500 mature individuals. There are 500-1,000 individuals that winter in China and 5,750 birds in Korea and Japan. Overall, currently this species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) and its numbers today are decreasing.