Siberian Crane

Description and biology

The Siberian crane, also known as the Siberian white crane, is a beautiful and rare wading bird. It has long, reddish pink legs, a reddish orange face, and a snowy white body with black markings on its wings.

An average Siberian crane stands 47 to 55 inches (119 to 140 centimeters) high. While young cranes eat insects, frogs, and small rodents, adults feed mainly on the roots and tubers (swollen underground stems) of aquatic plants.

Male and female Siberian cranes mate in early spring. Their courtship ritual includes rhythmic dances and flutelike calls. Very territorial, male–female pairs often build their nests 15 miles (24 kilometers) apart from other pairs.

Female Siberian cranes lay 2 eggs, and both parents take part in incubating (sitting on or brooding) them for about 30 days. The chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, but remain with their parents until they fledge (develop flying feathers) at two to four months. Usually only one chick survives infancy.

Habitat and current distribution

The Siberian crane currently breeds in only two areas: one in northeastern Siberia (between the Yana and Kolyma Rivers, the other in western Siberia on the lower reaches of the Ob River. The northeastern region features the majority of the cranes, about 3,000 breed there.

In winter, they migrate to Boyang (Poyang) Lake in southeast China. The Ob River population, which numbers less than 20, divides and migrates in winter to two different sites: the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, India, and the lowlands in northern Iran near the Caspian Sea.

The birds prefer to breed in marshy and lightly wooded tundra areas. In winter, they inhabit freshwater wetlands and shallow ponds.

History and conservation measures

Siberian cranes once nested throughout much of Siberia. Because the birds are seldom seen during migration, their wintering grounds remained a mystery until 1981, when the Boyang Lake site was discovered.

The major threat to the Siberian crane is hunting by humans along its migration path in Afghanistan and Iran. Habitat loss also puts the bird at risk. Wetlands along its migration routes and in its wintering regions have been drained by humans to create farmland and other developed land.

In China, in addition to drainage for farmland, the wintering area in the mud flats around Lake Poyang are threatened by construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Oil exploration and development is damaging the habitat in the breeding grounds in Siberia.

Programs have been established in the United States, Germany, and Russia to transfer eggs produced by Siberian cranes in captivity to wild sites, such as the breeding grounds around the Ob River.

In the wild, the eggs are hatched in electric incubators. Human keepers then care for the chicks until they fledge (acquire the ability to fly). To keep the cranes as isolated from humans as possible, the keepers dress in crane costumes.