Crane Lore

This page:
The crane family
Crane behaviour and migration
Crane prehistory
Crane history and conservation
Cranes in myth, legend and tradition
Cranes as symbols in heraldry, art and design
Cranes in the English language
Crane links

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The Crane family 
All cranes are large birds which inhabit wetlands, equipped with long legs for wading and a long neck and long sharp-pointed bill for feeding on tubers and small animals. 

True cranes from the family known as Gruidae are found on every continent except Antarctica and South America: 
    Grus grus  
    Eurasian crane
    Breeds in Scandinavia, central Europe east 
    to Siberia; winters in Spain, Portugal, 
    Turkey, Iraq, Iran, northern Africa.
    Grus nigricollis  
    Black-necked crane
    Breeds in Tibet; winters in southeast China 
    and northern Vietnam
    Grus monachus 
    Hooded crane
    Breeds in western Siberia; winters in India, 
    central China and southern Japan
    Grus canadensis 
    Sandhill crane
    Breeds in northeast Siberia, Canada, 
    Alaska, northern USA; winters in Texas, 
    New Mexico, Mexico, Georgia, Florida
    Grus americana 
    Whooping crane
    Breeds in Canada; winters in Texas
    Grus japonensis 
    Red-crowned crane
    Breeds in Japan, Russia, Manchuria; 
    winters in Japan, China, Korea
    Grus vipio 
    White-naped crane
    Breeds in Russia, Mongolia; 
    winters in eastern China, Japan and Korea
    Grus antigone 
    Sarus crane
    Breeds and winters in South East Asia, 
    now also found in northern Australia
    Grus rubicundus 
    Breeds/winters in Australia, New Guinea, 
    at times New Zealand or Coral Sea islands
    Grus leucogeranus 
    Siberian crane
    Breeds in western and eastern Siberia; 
    winters in China, Iran, India
    Bugeranus carunculatus 
    Wattled crane
    Breeds and winters in southern and 
    central Africa
    Anthropoides virgo 
    Demoiselle crane
    Breeds in the Ukraine to southeastern 
    Siberia; winters in north and east Africa, 
    Iraq and South East Asia 
    Anthropoides paradisea 
    Blue crane
    Breeds and winters in southern Africa
    Balearica pavonina 
    Black crowned crane 
    Breeds and winters in southern and 
    central Africa
    Balearica regulorum 
    Grey crowned crane
    Breeds and winters in southern and 
    central Africa

Other wading birds which are not from the family Gruidae are sometimes called cranes. In Australia, for example, the so-called 'white crane' is actually the Large egret while the 'blue crane' is the White-faced heron. 
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Crane behaviour and migration 
Many cranes are renowned for their migratory habits.  They breed in cooler areas and migrate for winter to warmer feeding grounds.  Those which breed in warmer climates do not need to migrate.  Juvenile cranes can fly 80 to 90 days after birth, but migratory types generally start to fly when they begin the autumn migration.  Young cranes learn migration routes as they follow older birds. 

Migrating cranes fly in an echelon, a V-formation so that birds following the leader save energy by not having to push aside the air as they fly.  The birds can cruise at speeds up to 70 km/h (45mph) and glide on thermals over considerable distances.  Whooping cranes, for example, travel 4,000km (2,500m) in segments of 300 to 500 km (185 to 300 m), with several days en route at staging areas. 
Migrating birds are vulnerable to changes in the habitat of their breeding, stopover or wintering areas, and also to collisions with powerlines. 
When cranes fly they extend their neck fully, while herons fly with their necks folded into an S-shape with their heads held close to their bodies.  Both trail their legs behind. 

Cranes usually stay with the same mate all their lives. 

They are very gregarious, forming into flocks of thousands of birds.  Flocks of sandhill cranes larger than 100,000 birds are not uncommon. 

Cranes can be long-lived - most writers cite an age of 40 to 60 years in captivity but one notes a captive Siberian crane living for 83 years and fathering chicks at age 78. 

Some cranes have elongated trachea which loops around in an expanded breastbone to allow them to trumpet very loudly when alarmed, in flight and during dances. 

Crane dances are spectacular  - they bow and bob, throw their heads back and trumpet, throw grass, stones and feathers into the air, leap up and parachute back down on their broad wings.  The crane dance is not only associated with mating behaviour - cranes seem to jump for joy! 

Cranes sleep on one leg, with the other drawn up to the body and the head tucked under the wing. 

Cranes are opportunistic feeders with a varied diet.  In summer they are likely to eat insects, frogs, small fish, small rodents, small birds and berries, and may scavenge dead animals.  During migration  they eat aquatic animals, tubers and roots, and waste grain on farms.  In winter their diet includes small fish, snakes, crabs, clams and wild fruit. 

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The fossil ancestors of modern cranes go back some 40-70 million years. 
The sandhill crane is the oldest living species - it dates back 10 million years! 
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History and conservation 
All the world's crane species have experienced threats from loss of their habitat, as wetlands in open country are very important for agriculture.  They have also suffered from hunting - big birds are an easy target! 


The Japanese crane was once widespread over much of Japan and mainland Asia.  In feudal Japan the crane was protected by the ruling classes and fed by the peasants.  When the feudal system was abolished in the late 
19th century, the protection of cranes was also lost and by 1920 they had dwindled to a population of less than 20 birds.  Only one colony had survived in a remote part of Hokkaido.  After receiving protection from the Government they began to recover but suffered many losses during World War II and the subsequent occupation.  The Government supported feeding of cranes in 1952 to bring the birds back from the brink of extinction. They began to overwinter in new places, thus improving their chances of survival.  Populations in Japan reached 450 in 1991, with a mainland population of 300 in Russia and 500 in Manchuria. 

Migrants to Japan Include the hooded crane (from Siberia) and the white-naped crane (from Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria).  These species have also been threatened by habitat change and wartime hunting.  By 1954 the population of the hooded crane was down to 250 birds, and white-naped down to 25 birds.  These have now recovered to number in the thousands. 

The sarus crane is protected by Hindus and thrives in densely populated areas, while the demoiselle crane is protected by Mongolians. 

North America  

The whooping crane is one of the rarest of North America's birds, nesting only in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and migrating to and from their main wintering areas in Texas.  There were 1500 whooping cranes in 1850 but it was almost extinct in 1941 when its wintering population fell to 15 birds.  The crane was one of the main stimuli for enactment of the US Endangered Species Act of 1973 which made the Federal Government responsible for endangered species and enshrined the right of species to exist.  By 1991 the crane had recovered to number 215 birds, due to ambitious programs for rearing and releasing young birds, including 'cross-fostering' where whooping crane eggs and young are reared by the more common types of sandhill cranes. 

There are six recognised subspecies of sandhill crane, three of which do not migrate.  One of these, the Mississippi sandhill crane, is endangered.  In 1920 there were about 100 birds but this had fallen in 1983 to 40 and was still falling.  Thanks to captive rear and release programs, their numbers have now increased. 


The common crane was once widespread throughout Europe and Scandinavia.  At the beginning of the 17th century they were still breeding in England and in the 19th century were still in the Balkans, Hungary and Austria.  It is now extinct in most European countries but overwinters in western Asia, northern Africa, Spain and Portugal. 

The Siberian crane is also endangered.  Most winter in China and others in Iran and India, where they face threats from habitat loss and hunting.  The numbers of this crane are now recovering due to captive breeding and 'cross-fostering' by common cranes.  It is hoped that the common cranes will teach young Siberian cranes migration routes to safer wintering sites. 

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Cranes in myth, legend and tradition 


Greek and Roman  

Greek and Roman myth tended to portray the dance of cranes as a love of joy and a celebration of life.  The crane was usually considered to be a bird of Apollo the sun god as a herald of Spring and light.  Apollo is  said to have disguised himself as a crane when on visits to the mortal world. 

The crane is also associated with poets (of whom Apollo is the god) and one legend tells of a thief who attacked Ibycus, a poet of the 6th century BC.  The poet, left for dead, called out to a flock of passing cranes. The cranes followed the murderer to a theatre and hovered over him until, stricken with guilt, he confessed to the theft and assault of Ibycus. 

Ovid wrote of a woman Gerana who was extremely vain about her beauty. 
Her vanity incurred the wrath of Hera and Artemis, and the goddesses turned her into a crane.  The Greek for crane is geranion

Homer told of the nation of Pygmies, dwarves who each Spring would wage war on the cranes on the banks of Oceanus.  later writers located this near the source of the Nile where cranes were said to migrate each year to take possession of the fields. 

In Japan the crane was known as 'the bird of happiness' and was often referred to as 'Honourable Lord Crane'.  In China the crane was the 'Patriarch of the feathered tribe'. 

The Chinese saw the crane's white standing for purity, the red head for vitality (and also connected with fire). 

The birds were associated with fidelity because they paired for life. 

They were also symbols of longevity and in both China and Japan were often drawn with pine trees, tortoises, stones and bamboo - all symbols of long life.  Both cultures also associated cranes with good fortune and prosperity so they are often painted with the sun - a symbol of social ambition. 

The Chinese believed that cranes ('heavenly cranes' tian-he or 'blessed cranes' xian-he) were symbols of wisdom - the messengers of legendary sages who were carried on their backs in flight between heavenly worlds.  They believed that pure white cranes were sacred birds which inhabited the Isles of the Blest. 

The powerful wings of the crane were said to be able to convey souls to the Western Paradise and to take people to higher levels of spiritual consciousness. 

The Chinese also saw valuable lessons in the flight of cranes in which the young must follow and learn from their older and wiser leaders. 

Ancient Chinese symbolism included the crane with the phoenix, mandarin duck, heron and wagtail as a representation of the five relationships between people.  The crane symbolises the father-son relationship - when it sings, its young answer. 

In many parts of Asia the cries of migrating cranes were a significant signal of the seasons - crops needed to be sown as the cranes departed for their breeding grounds in spring, while their arrival coincided with the harvest in autumn. 

Japanese creation myths talk of a legendary warrior who conquered his foes to extend the borders of ancient Japan.  On his death, his soul took the form of a crane and flew away. 

Legend has it that Yorimoto in the 12th century attached labels to the legs of cranes and asked people who captured them to record their location on the label and re-release the birds - a very early program of bird banding to find out about the movements of a species.  Some of Yorimoto's birds were claimed to have still been alive several centuries after his death, giving rise to the notion that a crane lived for a thousand years. 

Another legend records that at Kakamura in the 11th century a feudal leader celebrated a Buddhist festival in which birds and animals are set free, by releasing hundreds of cranes as thanksgiving after a successful battle.  Each had a prayer strip on its leg to pray for those killed in battle.  This appears to be the first recorded association of the crane with celebration of peace and prayers for those lost in war. 

The oldest known use of the motif of a thousand cranes is a 15m (50ft) long scroll by Sotatsu, an artist of the early 17th century.  The theme was repeated innumerable times in art on screens and walls.  Inevitably the crane's reputation for long life and prosperity became a symbol of good health, and origami cranes became a popular gift for those who were ill. 

It is apparent that as populations of cranes declined, artists drew on the work of other artists for details of the birds.  When a crane stands, it appears to to have a black tail, but the only black feathers are on the trailing edges of their long wings.  Yet for centuries, many artists  in China and Japan portrayed flying cranes with black tail feathers.  While the symbolism is clearly more important than biological accuracy, it is interesting to note that the symbol came very close to outliving the bird which inspired it. 

The crane is not so highly regarded in the mythology of India, where they stand for malice, betrayal and treachery.  However, in one legend Ramakrishna, when aged 6, fainted with rapture at the sight of a flock of cranes flying low against the background of the temple of Kali, with whom they were associated. 
Western Asian tradition tended to follow Greek and Roman writers in associating cranes with Apollo the sun god.  They believed that cranes (kurti in Persian and ghurnuq in Arabic) were awake very early in the morning saying their prayers.  They also believed that the brain and gall bladder of a crane had miraculous medicinal power to ensure a long life. 

Cranes were associated with vigilance and loyalty.  It was said that cranes gather at night in a circle to protect their king, with each keeping awake by standing on one leg.  The other leg was raised holding a stone in its claw.  If the crane fell asleep, the stone would drop and wake it, so they would always be vigilant. 
Early Christian writers associated the bird's reputation for vigilance, loyalty and goodness with the virtues of life in the monastery. 

Some Celtic mythology is less kind to cranes, seeing them as an ill omen.  In early Ireland it was taboo to eat a crane.  It was not all bad, however, as the Irish warhero Finn was saved from falling over a cliff as a small child by his grandmother who was transformed into a crane.  Finn was associated with the cranes of death - four enchanted sons of an old woman known as the Hag of the Temple. 

One of the Celtic sea gods had a famous 'crane-bag' made from the skin of a woman who was transformed into a crane due to her jealousy.  The god Midhir had three hostile cranes which guarded him from visitors - it was said that they had the power to rob warriors of their courage and the will to fight (an early symbol of hopes for peace, perhaps). 


The crowned crane is associated with language and thought, perhaps because of the bird's stance when feeding, which looks very contemplative. 

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Cranes as symbols in heraldry, art, design and ritual

It is not uncommon to find puns used in the designs of heraldry.  An example is the use of a crane (French grue) in the arms of the Gruyere region of Switzerland. 
The flag of Uganda carries a crowned crane, making it one of the few national flags to bear the image of a bird. 


In Japan the crane was called tancho meaning 'red crown'. 
The red and white of the crane became important colours in Japanese symbolism and art (and have also been chosen for this Web page!). 

Japan Air Lines used a crane symbol in the traditional red and white colours.  While their logo has since been simplified, the colours remain. 

Because of their association with fidelity, prosperity and longevity, the crane motif and these colours are a common symbol in marriages in Japan.  They are often used on the bride's kimono; on announcing their engagement the bride and groom often exchange decorations shaped like cranes; sweet cakes baked in the shape of cranes, and even ice sculptures of cranes are likely to be part of the wedding celebrations. 

In Vietnam it is common to find sculptures of cranes with tortoises.  The crane is thought to live 1,000 years, the tortoise 10,000 years.  Together they symbolise a wish that you personally may be remembered for 1,000 years and that your cult may last  for  10,000 years.  The sculptures are generally in wood, in pairs in front of an altar, and may be greater than 3m (10ft) high.  Some are made in copper, with a lotus flower in the mouth to hold a candle, and placed at ancestral altars. 

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Cranes in the English language 

The name 'crane' is derived from Old English cran and the Old German krano

The machine crane is named due to its resemblance to the birds. 

The expression 'to crane one's neck' refers to the habit of cranes of extending their necks and heads fully when in flight. 

Cranberry was named by 17th century American colonists from the German kranbeere or crane-berry. 

The flower geranium (or cranesbill) is named from the resemblance of the fruit to the bill of a crane, from the Greek geranion meaning crane. 

An unusual association is in the term pedigree for someone's ancestry and descent.  The word comes from the Old French  pied de grue, or  'foot of the crane', due to the resemblance of a crane's footprint to an arrow-like symbol used  in the 14th century to mark generations on charts of genealogy. 

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Crane links 

Find out more about the world of cranes at these sites: 

International Crane Foundation 

Northern Prairie Research Centre 

World Wildlife Fund Canada 

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    HTML Copyright 1998-2006  
    Mark and Lyn Butz - Email     

    Last modified 27 September 2006 

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