The Beautiful Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaido

My first encounter with a red-crowned crane was many, many years ago. I was probably around six when I first saw the Japanese folktale book, Tsuru no Ongaeshi (The Crane’s Return of Favour). In the story, a red-crowned crane is rescued from a hunter’s trap by an old man. Under the disguise of a woman, the crane visits the man and his wife to repay them for helping her. She secretly turns back into a crane and weaves silk for them to sell and get money. But when they discover she’s not actually human, she has no choice but to leave and sadly they never see her again.

Red-crowned crane

In Japanese, cranes in general are called tsuru, while red-crowned cranes specifically are called tancho. This refers to the red patch of skin on their head which appears when they’re about two years old. Tancho are endangered and exist only in Siberia, China and Hokkaido. It was thought that they were extinct in the early 1900s because of overhunting and urbanisation. But thankfully in 1925, ten birds were found in the Kushiro wetlands (now Kushiro Shitsugen National Park) in Eastern Hokkaido. From then on, a lot was done to protect and breed them. Now there is a population of around 2,000.

Cranes of the world
Cranes species around the worldKushiro Shitsugen
Kushiro Shitsugen National Park

The tancho are probably most famous for their beautiful mating dance. To find a partner, the cranes face each other, throw back their heads, spread their wings and leap up in the air. Thousands of people go to the snow-covered feeding grounds around Kushiro every February to witness this special event. The best place catch this spectacle is near the Akan International Crane Centre.

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Crane dance display in the Kushiro City Museum
Red-crowned crane

After finding a mating partner, the cranes begin their life together. In March, the pairs build a huge nest made of reeds in the marshlands. The nest is a giant, two-metre wide and 50cm deep cushion, with an indent in the middle where the eggs will be laid. They lay one or two eggs at a time. Then from April, the parents take turns incubating the eggs, switching places around four times a day. About a month after starting incubation, the eggs hatch. The baby cranes have soft brown feathers, and open their eyes and begin walking straight away.

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Little chick, big nest
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From June to October, the parents take turns feeding their babies. They start with little things like small fish, bits of crayfish, worms and insects. As the chicks get bigger, they start to eat larger fish, shellfish and frogs. They reach the size of their parents when they are just three months old. By 100 days, they are able to fly but they stay with their parents until they are around ten months old. During this time, their brown feathers gradually turn black and white like their parents. And then about three or four years later, they are ready to start breeding!

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3 month old crane at the Akan International Crane Centre
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From egg to adult

The red-crowned cranes have become one of the symbols of Japan. They are the logo of Japan Airlines (JAL) and are a popular origami (paper folding) design.

What are some unusual or rare birds you’ve encountered either captive or in the wild?

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23 thoughts on “The Beautiful Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaido

      1. :) I just read an article about the Int’l Crane Foundation founder George Archibald, who famously danced with Whooping Cranes in order to enhance breeding behavior in cranes that had imprinted on humans. His work has been quite successful in increasing awareness and populations of 15 crane species worldwide. https://www.savingcranes.org Cool stuff!

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  1. On my first visit to Taiwan, and probably on the second or third day of the trip, a kingfisher flew beside me. The colours were so vibrant. Wow! was all I could think.

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  2. 雪が積もった釧路湿原で、翼を広げて舞う丹頂鶴の群れを見に行きたいです。
    2月に北海道を訪れたいとおもいますが、セリアさんもいっしょに行きませんか。

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    1. Thanks, Suzanne. You’re right – these wetlands really felt like a completely different country. It’s often likened to an African savannah! You can do canoe trips along the meandering rivers and see birds and other wildlife up close. An amazing place to visit especially when you know a bit about the landscape and animals!

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    1. Thanks Mabel :) Yes, they are most definitely a symbol of elegance and kindness. The pairs mate for life and continue to do these dances together every year which I think is so romantic!

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  3. Hokkaido is on the must-do list of many international birdwatchers and nature lovers because of its special wildlife. In March this year I saw these iconic cranes near Kushiro; such a great conservation success story for Japan. Plus it’s famous for a huge fish-eating owl and awesome sea eagles not to mention the bears and sea otters. Fabulous! Loved it!

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    1. Wow it must have been an incredible experience!! Did you go on your own or with a tour? I desperately want to go but am scared of driving on snowy roads since I’ve never done it before.

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  4. Isn’t it astounding that with care and protection, a population of just 10 birds could flourish to 2,000? Thank you for teaching me so much about these beautiful creatures, Celia … wonderful post!

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    1. Absolutely, Heide. It’s a great success story. Apparently it took more than 10 years to figure out how to breed them. But when they did finally get it right, their numbers boomed. I think the artificial feeding grounds in winter have helped a lot to maintain the population, too.

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