Always admired for their beauty and exalted in mythology, cranes have long been a subject of fascination. Stately and elegant, perhaps no bird is more emblematic of Sub-Saharan Africa than the Grey Crowned Crane. Perhaps due to their shape and behaviour, standing tall and striding about proudly in open areas, we feel a kinship with them. Many times they are in pairs amid the most serene of settings, and they engage in astounding displays and courtship rituals, adding still more to their intrigue. So conspicuous. So bold. So finely adorned. And yet, so fragile.
There are just fifteen species of cranes worldwide. Found on every continent save Antarctica, quite a few species are rare or seriously endangered. Yet others, such as the Sandhill, or the Hoodeds and White-napeds, or the demure Demoiselle Cranes occur in astounding concentrations. Wherever and whenever they gather, the spectacle of so many together, combined with their majestic aura, have forever made them a favourite among wildlife photographers.
The great Peter Matthiessen referred to them as “The Birds of Heaven”. In his book by that title, he detailed their history, feats of migration, and remarkable habits, and in the process inspired many to travel the world and try to see them all, while that remains possible. And this month’s feature, the stunning Grey Crowned Crane, is arguably the most magnificent of all.
This is the national bird of Uganda, and routinely features on perhaps our most popular tour to the wildlife mecca of Kenya & Tanzania. There, sometimes flocks of a few dozen may be seen, and they are often surrounded by large wild animals, and in spectacular settings. Yes, even among those who know little of the birds of Africa, the crowned crane resonates. When it comes up in conversation, a reverence is revealed amid the hushed tones and superlative adjectives attached to it. The white cheeks, the velvet forehead, the blue eyes, with the crimson inflatable throat wattle, delicate grey neck feathers and striking white wings visible during its dancing displays, are indeed something to behold. Add to these the loud bugling call and you have a unique, almost otherworldly bird, and one of the African continent’s greatest!
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