Duncan Butchart is an author, illustrator and all-round naturalist and shares his fascination with Africa’s exquisite Grey Crowned Crane, including the intense courtship rituals and extraordinary mating dance
With their long legs and slim necks, cranes are among the most elegant of all birds. Although superficially resembling storks and herons, they are not related.
There are 15 species of crane around the world (absent only in South America and Antarctica) but since they forage and nest in open grasslands or wetlands they have run into trouble with humankind and most species are now threatened while some are critically endangered.
Luckily, the spectacular Grey Crowned Crane is still fairly common in many of Africa’s larger protected areas and there are few better places to see this avian royalty than in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
Grey Crowned Crane pairs bond for life – engaging in an extraordinary courtship dance at the onset of the annual breeding season. Each member of the pair bobs, sways and shimmies – while arching its wings – as though it were on a Cuban mambo dance floor. A nasal, honking call may accompany the nifty footwork.
As with other birds, the act of mating is itself brief and seemingly unrewarding given the intense courtship ritual. Nevertheless, two to four eggs are ultimately laid on a platform of grass and sedge placed in a seasonal marsh, hidden from most predators.
The diet includes grass seeds, sedge tips, insects and small vertebrates but also millet, maize and groundnuts luring them onto farmland, which has replaced the crane’s original habitat.
Undoubtedly the most eye-catching part of this lovely bird is its ornate crown of fine golden feathers. In one African fable, it is said that golden crowns were bestowed upon the birds by a thankful king after they had guided him through a desert back to his palace. These proved to be a curse, however, as greedy people then killed the cranes for their crowns. This made the king very sad, so he changed the crowns into crests of straw-like feathers.