Dancing With the Cranes

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SPAIN

IN THE South Korean city of Pusan, you can see an extraordinary folk dance. Men dressed in white robes and wearing tall black hats wave their arms, whirl and bow, and even stand on one leg.

Their peculiar, impromptu movements have a simple explanation. The men are imitating the red-crowned cranes that for centuries have wintered in South Korea. The unique dance of these cranes so impressed the local people that they created their own dance, based on the postures of the birds.

A thousand miles [1,500 kms] away, in Hokkaido, Japan, nature lovers flock to the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park to see the real thing. Thanks to an artificial feeding program during the harsh winter months, a Japanese colony of red-crowned cranes now numbers several hundred. A group of these elegant white-and-black birds performing their spirited dances in the snow is most beautiful to behold. National Geographic writer Jennifer Ackerman uses the Japanese word aware to describe her enthrallment. It expresses “the feelings that arise from the poignant beauty of an ephemeral thing,” she explains.

Cranes, which can be found on all continents except South America and Antarctica, have long held a fascination for people. These birds appear in cave paintings in Africa, Australia, and Europe. In the Far East, where cranes are symbols of longevity and happiness, they are a favorite theme of artists. Possibly because cranes may remain paired for life, they also represent marital happiness and frequently figure on bridal kimonos. The Koreans have classified the red-crowned crane as a “natural monument” in view of its rarity and beauty. The Japanese depict dancing cranes on their 1,000-yen bills. And as far back as 2,500 years ago, the Chinese developed a “dance of the white cranes.” Perhaps it is this unique affinity for dancing that explains why cranes have a special place in people’s affections.

The Dance of the Cranes

All 15 species of cranes dance, and even young chicks less than two days old have a try. “Some other bird groups dance too,” explains the Handbook of the Birds of the World, “but none do so as extensively, nor . . . as beautifully to human eyes.” The dance of the cranes is quite varied and always spectacular​—given the large size of the birds, their elegant posturing, and their dramatic leaps high into the air with outstretched  wings. The dance typically includes “long, intricate sequences of co-ordinated bows, leaps, runs and short flights,” adds the Handbook of the Birds of the World. And just like humans, once a few cranes start dancing, the whole group usually decides to take part. Observers in Africa have seen as many as 60 pairs of gray crowned cranes all dancing together in unison.

Why do cranes dance? Is it exercise, communication, courtship, alarm, or just a display of good spirits? The motivation may include any or all these reasons. Certainly, cranes like to dance in pairs, and dancing forms a part of their courtship ritual. But even immature cranes dance, and the youngsters are usually the most enthusiastic dancers. “Whatever its motivation, it is a delight to observe,” concludes the Handbook of the Birds of the World.

The Flight of the Cranes

You often hear cranes long before you see them. A haunting trumpetlike call announces their presence, even though they may be miles away. This call apparently helps to keep the flock together during their long migration flights. Most species of cranes migrate from their northern breeding grounds. In the autumn they travel huge distances from Canada, Scandinavia, or Siberia to the warmer climes of China, India, the United States (Texas), or the Mediterranean region. These journeys are hazardous and exhausting. Some Eurasian cranes have been spotted flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet [nearly 10,000 meters] as they cross the Himalayas en route to India. They fly in the typical V-formation and take advantage of thermals so that they can glide as far as possible. When crossing water, however, they must depend on wing power alone. *

Spanish ornithologist Juan Carlos Alonso has spent nearly 20 years tracking the migration patterns of the 70,000 Eurasian cranes that winter in Spain. “Some birds are ringed, and others are fitted with small radio transmitters so that we can track their migration flight,” he explains. “It is a real thrill for me when in its Spanish wintering area, I discover a bird that I myself ringed when it was a fledgling in Northern Germany. The cranes’ migration routes have been used for centuries. A crane ringed in Finland was found wintering as far south as Ethiopia, while some cranes from Siberia winter in Mexico.”

 Fighting for Survival​—With Human Help

Currently, 9 of the 15 species of cranes are threatened with extinction. The most critically endangered, the whooping crane of North America, was reduced to a mere 14 birds in 1938. Thanks to a captive-breeding program and the protection of key habitats, however, their numbers have slowly risen to over 300. Naturalists now rear chicks in captivity and then reintroduce them to protected areas in the wild. Recently, ultralight aircraft have been used successfully to teach a few young whooping cranes how to migrate. Russian scientists are making similar efforts to protect the endangered Siberian crane.

One of the most touching success stories comes from Japan. A small colony of red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido did not migrate, since the birds were able to feed during the winter months along streams located near hot springs. In the harsh winter of 1952, however, even these streams froze over, and the small flock of 30 birds seemed destined to disappear. But local schoolchildren scattered corn on the frozen streams, and the birds survived. Since then, the cranes have been fed regularly, and the small flock has increased to nearly 900 birds, about a third of the total worldwide population.

Facing an Uncertain Future

Like many other species, cranes have suffered from the draining of wetlands and the loss of grasslands. To survive, cranes have had to learn to live with people. They generally prefer to keep humans at a safe distance of several miles, but where they are not molested, they can become accustomed to human presence. In India, sarus cranes, the tallest of all flying birds, have adapted to breeding in village ponds. Other successful crane species have learned to glean on agricultural land while migrating or when they are in their winter quarters.

It is hoped that the concerted efforts of conservationists in many countries will ensure the survival of these graceful creatures. What a tragedy it would be if future generations could never thrill to the magnificent dance of the cranes or hear their clarion calls as they fly southward across the autumn sky!

[Footnote]

^ par. 11 Thousands of Eurasian cranes migrate through Israel in spring and autumn, and some also winter there. In the late afternoon in the upper Jordan Valley, fortunate observers may see flocks of cranes flying against the backdrop of snow-covered Mount Hermon. This spectacle offers a fleeting moment of unforgettable beauty.

 [Picture on page 15]

Red-crowned cranes, Asia

[Picture on page 16]

Detail from a Korean porcelain

[Picture on page 16]

Black-and-white cranes with ear tufts

[Picture on page 16, 17]

Common European cranes in flight

[Picture on page 17]

Crowned cranes