The Rhinos at the Reid Park Zoo are amiable enough to share their large habitat – first with a bachelor herd of tiny Speke’s Gazelle, and now with a pair of beautiful East African Crowned Cranes. In the wild, these endangered creatures live beside larger animals in wetlands and grasslands in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa. In neighboring Rwanda, Dr. Olivier Nsengimana, who has loved this species since childhood, founded the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, which is particularly active in protecting and repopulating Crowned Cranes. These distinctive birds with their unmistakable golden crowns are the national bird of Uganda, and their image even graces the Ugandan flag.
The peacocks have some serious competition in the gorgeous bird category! East African Crowned Cranes are a subspecies of grey cranes, and are a little over 3 feet tall, with a six-foot wingspan. Males are a bit larger than females, weighing in between 6 ½ and 8 ½ pounds. The Cranes boast distinctive coloration, including pearly grey bodies, wings that are mostly white with some brown and gold feathers, and black legs which have a handy prehensile back toe on each foot. Their heads have five interesting features: a relatively short beak, distinctive white cheeks, a black patch on top, of course the stiff and distinctive gold feather crown, and a bright red inflatable pouch (the gular sac) beneath the chin.
Omnivores, but sometimes picky eaters
East African Crowned Cranes spend their days foraging for food, and their unique physical attributes help a lot. First, they like to forage for insects, seeds, small creatures like worms and lizards, and nuts in tall grasses, and their crowns help greatly with camouflage. Also, they tend to pal around with larger species, because the heavier footfalls of their animal companions tend to stir up the ground and encourage tasty live tidbits to come to the surface. In a pinch, Crowned Cranes have been observed stamping their dainty feet to accomplish the same thing.
When they are near water, Crowned Cranes are known to enjoy small fish or aquatic eggs. In ranching or agricultural areas, which are unfortunately claiming more and more of their habitats, they enjoy foraging in newly-plowed fields, and especially enjoy eating fresh maize directly from the cobs, rejecting stray kernels that may have fallen to the ground! After a long day of discriminating foraging, munching, and seed dispersal, Cranes sleep in trees, and their special prehensile back toes allow them to perch comfortably high above the dangers on the ground.
Endearing family life
East African Crowned Cranes are believed to mate for life, and males and females share the duties of nest building, incubation, and chick rearing. But how does a pair get together in the first place? They perform an intricate mating dance which can be initiated by either the male or female. The dance begins with that bright red gular sac, initiating a series of mating calls. Head bobbing, wing spreading, and jumping follow – take a look! The pair builds their nest in a wet marshy area where there is a lot of tall vegetation, so an adult can sit on the 2-4 eggs and still be well camouflaged. After around thirty days, the amazingly precocial chicks hatch. They can swim and float after only 12 hours. The next day they start eating, and on their third day of life they’re already helping their parents forage for food in the marshlands. They’ll stay with their parents for about three years, and then leave to join a juvenile flock.
The lovely East African Crowned Cranes are listed by the IUCN as endangered, mostly due to habitat fragmentation for agriculture and grazing, and unfortunately due to the illegal pet trade. In some countries where they’re endemic, owning them is a status symbol. AZA-accredited zoos like the Reid Park Zoo are doing their part, through the Species Survival Plan, to ensure that these beautiful birds can once again flourish in Africa, and thankfully Ugandans are also beginning to protect their beloved species. After the Pathway to Asia is complete in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, next on the list will be a reconfiguration of the habitats of the African species in the center of the Zoo. Who knows? These mellow birds may get some new neighbors, and maybe even move in with them!