The Blue Crane is South Africa’s national bird – and their falling numbers sparked the launch of the Overberg Crane Group in the 1990s.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Anthropoides paradiseus
IUCN RED LIST (Global status): Vulnerable
RED DATA BOOK OF BIRDS (Regional status): Near Threatened
Latest estimates suggest just over 25,000 individual Blue Cranes are alive.
KNOW YOUR BLUE CRANE
Blue Cranes are tall birds, reaching up to 1.2m. They are blue-grey in colour, have a distinctive white patch on their head, and have long, black wing feathers that resemble tail feathers when standing.
WHERE ARE THEY FOUND?
The Blue Crane is found in South Africa, with only a small population also found in northern Namibia and western Swaziland. More than half the Blue Crane population lives in the Overberg.
WHAT HABITAT DO BLUE CRANES LIKE?
Blue Cranes generally like open grassland, and this is also where they’re likely to breed (although sometimes they make their nests next to water). They also use agricultural habitats, like pastures and croplands, but don’t like lands that have been intensively grazed or burnt.
Blue Crane numbers have been hard hit over the decades – affected by poisonings in the 1970s and 1980s. Today poisonings may still occur (although this may be accidental in many cases). Collisions with power lines are a major threat. Blue Cranes are also traded illegally, or kept as pets. They may also struggle with farming infrastructure, like fencing, bailing twine and water troughs (chicks often drown here). Their habitat is also under threat – like grassland and Karoo veld.
MORE FACTS ON THE BLUE CRANE
The Blue Crane is a near-endemic to South Africa with a small isolated population of about 60-80 birds found around the Etosha Pans in Namibia and a few isolated birds in Botswana and Swaziland. It is the most range restricted of all the cranes in the world. That means it’s abundant in limited areas of its range, but is rare in most areas of South Africa.
Within South Africa there are three main Blue Crane strongholds. The first is in the Overberg/Swartland regions of the Western Cape Province, the second is the central Karoo population (the southeastern region of the Northern Cape province and the western regions of the Eastern Cape province extending into the southern regions of the Free State), while the third is situated along the eastern section of the country and includes the southern parts of Mpumalanga, the northeastern Free State and parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
Historically, Blue Cranes occurred mainly in the grassland biome along the eastern section of the country. The loss of the natural grasslands in the Free State, Northern Province, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, and the replacement of the natural vegetation with wheat and dryland pastures in the wheat producing regions of the Swartland and Overberg in the Western Cape, changed the distribution and demographics of the Blue Crane population.
Today the largest numbers of Blue Cranes are found in the Western Cape (± 12 000 birds), with a smaller population in the Northern/Eastern Cape (± 5 000 birds) and the rest (± 5 000 birds) occurring in the remainder of its current distribution range.
Blue Cranes are mostly independent of wetlands and this allows them to be more widespread than the other cranes in South Africa. With regards to natural vegetation, within South Africa Blue Cranes can be found in the open grasslands and the grassland/Karoo ecotone, while in Namibia they occur in the grasslands and dwarf shrublands fringing the pans. They are frequently found in agricultural fields and in the Western Cape they are restricted to cereal crop fields and dryland pastures.
Evidence suggests that the Blue Crane is primarily vegetarian and eats small bulbs, seeds and roots. They do, however, eat a variety of insects (locusts, termites, caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, etc.), worms, crabs, fish, frogs, reptiles, and small mammals. The blue crane is often reported doing damage in various agricultural crops, like wheat, barley and lucern. In most cases the birds are merely feeding on spilled grain. In the Overberg, they regularly feed from feed bins set out for sheep and ostriches. Birds feed mostly by pecking, but they do dig using their bills.
Blue Cranes only pair with one mate (monogamous), and despite being very social animals are extremely territorial while breeding, driving any other Blue Cranes from the breeding territory. They nest in summer and the laying date can be anytime between August and April. Non-breeding birds form non-breeding flocks during this period. After the chicks have fledged, they together with the adults join the non-breeding flocks to form large over-wintering groups.
Blue Cranes nest in open grasslands, agricultural areas, and even wetlands, where all-round visibility is good. The birds often return to the same area and nest close to the previous year’s nest. Generally the nest is a scrape in the ground with a few stones and sheep dung scraped together. In wetlands, however, they usually nest on a pad of vegetation.
Blue Cranes mate for life and display a wonderful courtship dance during which the two birds jump up and down with their wings extended. The birds are mature at about three to five years of age. They usually lay two eggs with an incubation period of 30 to 33 days and both male and female incubate the eggs. Chicks are fed on an initial diet of insect larvae and worms. The chicks are able to fly at about three to five months. The parents are very protective of their young and will guard them aggressively.
But Blue Crane chicks often die during the first year, because they are simply so vulnerable to so many threats. The following breeding season, the young juveniles will join the large flocks of non-breeding birds.
Blue Cranes are migratory only within South Africa and only within certain regions. Little is known about the migratory habits and published statements often contradict each other. In the Western Cape, evidence from satellite tracking and colour ringing suggests very localised movements within this region.
Blue Cranes are known to go through both a partial moult as well as a complete moult, when they become flightless. On the Agulhas Plain, Blue Cranes go through a synchronised moulting during the second half of summer. Birds going through flightless moult form large flocks in areas where they’re less likely to be threatened, like close to vleis and wetland areas, where they can escape when threatened. Birds going through a complete moult tend to be skittish and move away at the first sign of disturbance. The cranes seem to use specific sites for moulting and these sites need to be identified and conserved. The time needed to re-grow flight feathers could take up to two months.
POPULATION NUMBERS AND TRENDS
Populations in the past were estimated to be around 100 000 individuals, but the population is now thought to be between 15 855 and 25 120 individuals, according to South African Crane Conservation Programme national census figures. Huge population declines have been reported in many areas, mostly in the grassland regions. Declines were documented from areas such as the Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga areas where the crane’s grassland habitats are likely to remain at risk, but in the Karoo region the population is stable. In the agricultural areas of the south-western Cape Province the crane populations are increasing. The Animal Demography Unit coordinates a project monitoring the trends in numbers and distribution of Blue Cranes. This information is shared with the Overberg Crane Group on a regular basis.
Although the Blue Crane is still found in most areas within their historic range, crane populations world-wide have experienced significant and rapid local declines over the last twenty years, says research from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Centre. In some areas populations have declined by about 90 percent. The Blue Crane seems to be stable in South Africa’s Karoo region, but they are thriving in the agricultural areas of the Western Cape. In Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, Blue Cranes have drastically declined by about 75 to 95 percent.
Blue Cranes are classed as terrestrial birds, since they spend most of their time feeding, breeding and roosting on the ground and, having adapted to modern agricultural practices, can be seen across the rural landscape. Nonetheless, they are accomplished and graceful flyers and can also be seen flying in pairs or in groups. During changes in season when the general weather patterns are about to alter, Blue Cranes often take thermal currents and can be seen spiraling up into the sky before assuming a V-formation and gliding off into the distance. This is usually accompanied by much calling as they circle above.
SPRING TO SUMMER
Breeding birds start to dominate the choice areas and can be seen in pairs or with their young family in open fields. Flocks break up and move to the fringes of the breeding areas.
LATE SUMMER TO EARLY WINTER
Pairs with their fledged young join the flocks to form large groups and can be seen feeding in the lands.
WINTER TO SPRING
Birds become more nomadic and unpredictable, moving in groups according to availability of food and weather conditions.
In the Overberg, you’re likely to see Blue Cranes along the many agricultural roads in the region. The Overberg Wheatbelt and the Agulhas Plain are Blue Crane favourites. Look out for grasslands and agricultural lands – you could well see them there. And they often fly overhead when you’re on the roads in the Overberg. In fact – you can’t really miss these graceful and beautiful birds.
Good luck with your crane watching.
ACTION TO SAVE OUR BLUE CRANE
We must protect the habitat of the Blue Crane. Awareness raising campaigns need to also encourage good practice when poisons are used. Campaigns must inform people not to steal Blue Crane chicks. Negotiations with Eskom must continue to address power line collisions. And we must assess all wind turbine applications, and prevent turbines that may threaten our Blue Cranes.
THE IUCN RED LIST OF THREATENED SPECIES/RED DATA BOOK OF BIRDS OF SOUTH AFRICA:
|Not Evaluated||Data Deficient||Least Concern||Near Threatened||Vulnerable||Endangered||Critically endangered||Extinct in the wild||Extinct|
REPORT RINGED BIRDS
Hundreds of Blue Cranes have had rings placed on their legs over the years. We use these rings to identify Blue Cranes. With this information, we can learn more about them. If you see a Blue Crane with rings on its legs, please let us know.
The Overberg Crane Group is the only organisation dedicated to protecting our Overberg's birds, like Blue Cranes and Cape Vultures. We need your help to protect our threatened bird species from possible future extinction.
There’s a convenient way for bird lovers to note the birds they see – using the BirdLasser app. You can download the BirdLasser app to your cellphone. It’s also a great tool for bird lovers to keep accurate records of their sightings