North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia


Wetlands and grasslands

Emblematic symbols

From their powerful calls to their intricate dances, cranes have enchanted people for centuries. These birds fly through Australian and Native American legends and European folklore, and some species are considered sacred in Asia. Fifteen crane species range across five continents, with migratory species circumnavigating scorching deserts, mountain ranges, and frozen tundra. Because their migration routes defy the borders of nations, cranes are emblematic of peace and unity among diverse peoples.

Elegance and grace: by any other name, a crane

Cranes are large birds with a long neck and legs, a streamlined body, and long, rounded wings. Their size and graceful proportions make them easy to recognize by all. Cranes are some of the tallest birds in the world. In flight, their body forms a straight line from bill to toes, presenting a beautiful, elegant image.

Cranes come with a broad array of adornments from ornamental wattles and crests to dramatic plumage colors. The blue crane even puffs out its feathers like a cobra when excited!

The sarus crane is the tallest of the crane species and the tallest flying bird.
Queen Marie Antoinette of France gave the dainty demoiselle crane its name. “Demoiselle” means maiden, or young lady, in French. The queen was enchanted by the crane's delicate and maidenly appearance.
Ancient Greeks believed the flight of cranes inspired the god Hermes to invent the Greek alphabet.
Fossil records show that crowned cranes existed 37 to 54 million years ago. Prehistoric cave paintings of cranes have been found in Europe, Africa, and Australia.
Sandhill crane chicks have been known to start swimming when they are only six hours old.
The flag of Uganda features a crowned crane, making it one of the few national flags to bear the image of a bird.
Cranes have been clocked flying 45 miles (72 kilometers) per hour.
The white-naped crane is an important symbol in the Korean New Year celebration and is featured in art and folklore.
The mating rituals of crowned cranes are so engaging that some African tribes have made them a part of their culture.
Ancient Egyptians decorated their tombs with images of cranes.
Japan Airlines' logo is a stylized crane nest.
Red-crowned cranes are associated with nobility and immortality in China.
In 2011, people around the world folded paper cranes to help raise money for earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan.
Crowned cranes are the only cranes that roost in trees.
Black-necked cranes were the last crane species discovered and described by ornithologists (1876), due to their remoteness in China’s high-altitude wetlands.

You don’t need to “crane” your neck to get a good look at these elegant birds. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, one of the first exhibits near the entrance is home to a pair of West African crowned cranes, and other types of cranes—East African crowned, blue, Indian sarus, white-naped, wattled, red-crowned, and demoiselle cranes—are featured in a variety of settings, including Nairobi Village, African Woods, and field exhibits.

Cranes living in the Park's huge field exhibits share their space with large mammals like giraffes, rhinos, and Cape buffalo, but get help from keepers to ensure that any eggs laid remain intact. When the cranes lay their eggs, keepers pull the eggs from the nest and replace them with “dummy eggs” so the parents will continue their natural nesting behaviors. The keepers place the eggs in incubators until just before hatching. The eggs are then placed back with the parents. This minimizes the risk of damage to the precious eggs and still allows the chicks to imprint on and be raised by their parents. Once hatched, the entire family is taken to another location until the chicks are a bit older.

To date, 114 cranes have hatched since the Safari Park opened in 1972, and 57 of those have been East African crowned cranes. In 2014, we welcomed the hatch of a wattled crane, a first for our organization!

Safari Park guests can also see an East African crowned crane named Taji fly overhead during one of the Park's daily Frequent Flyers bird shows.

Cranes in trouble
All crane species are rapidly dwindling. The Siberian crane Grus leucogeranus is at critical risk, due mainly to hunters shooting them during their 4,000-mile migration between the Russian arctic and India. The red-crowned crane Grus japonensis is endangered mainly due to loss of habitat; cranes need large areas of habitat, which are gradually being turned into farms or housing sites. Even the marshes where cranes nest are being slowly drained for agricultural purposes. The gray-crowned crane Balearic regulorum is endangered due to the illegal trade in the species.

The whooping crane: back from the brink
Whooping cranes Grus americana are the tallest birds in North America. They were once numerous in the prairie wetlands of the US and Canada, but settlers drained the wetlands to build farms and cities, and hunted the large birds for their meat. By 1941, only 15 birds were observed at their wintering area on the Gulf Coast of Texas. To help save the birds from extinction, refuges were established, the birds were carefully monitored, and hunters were educated about the harm they could do to the species.

Through intensive efforts, there are now two distinct migratory populations—the only natural, self-sustaining whooping crane flocks left in the world. There are also small, nonmigratory flocks of whooping cranes in Florida and Louisiana. Whooping cranes are still endangered, but there is certainly more hope for the species these days, with their numbers currently at almost 600 birds in managed care and the wild.

Help for cranes
In 1973, the International Crane Foundation was founded to be the world center for the study and preservation of cranes. It has become a world leader in crane conservation, including the breeding of endangered species. San Diego Zoo Global works with the Foundation, providing cranes for breeding and helping with wetland conservation work in China. The founder of the International Crane Foundation, George Archibald, Ph.D., is the 2005 San Diego Zoo Global Conservation Medalist.

San Diego Zoo Global is dedicated to crane conservation and, in particular, an artificial insemination program involving sarus, red-crowned, demoiselle, and blue cranes.

You can help, too
You can help us bring crane species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe. It is hoped that the haunting calls of wild cranes will continue for many generations to come.