Crane, West African Black-Crowned

Scientific Name: Balearica pavonina pavonina

The two species of Balearica cranes are the smallest of the fifteen crane species, and they are the only cranes that roost in trees.

Cranes are tall, elegant, long-legged, long-necked birds best known for their dancing during breeding season. The West African crowned crane is also known as the black-crowned crane, and the East African crowned crane is also known as the grey crowned crane.

How the Crane Got Its Crown

According to an African legend, a great chief became lost while hunting with his court in the heat of the summer. He quickly became weak from lack of water and food. He asked several passing animals, such as Zebra, Elephant, and Antelope, if they would help him find the oasis where his court was camping. All refused because he had hunted them. Finally, a flock of cranes flew by and agreed to help him. They brought the chief water and then led him to his court. As a reward, he had his goldsmith make each crane a gold crown. The next day, the cranes appeared without the crowns and explained to the chief that the other animals were jealous and had stolen and destroyed the crowns. The chief then called for his court magician, who touched each crane on the top of the head. From the place where the crane was touched grew its crown of gold feathers.

The West African crowned crane is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to habitat loss caused by farming, especially of the marshy areas they prefer for breeding, and capture for domestication.

These cranes live in open grasslands, marshes, and meadows near lakes and streams in Africa, from Cape Verde to Lake Chad in the north and south into Nigeria and Cameroon.

Crowned cranes primarily eat grass, seeds, and grain. They will also consume invertebrates and the roots of some plants. Because of their proximity to humans, they can become crop pests.

The West African crowned crane is covered with loose, slate-gray feathers and has conspicuous white wing coverts (the feathers at the leading edge of the wing). There is a patch of bare skin on each cheek, which is white above red or pink. The East African crowned crane is covered with lighter gray feathers and also has the white wing coverts, but the bare cheek patches are white with a red border along the top. Both species have a golden crown of feathers on the top of the head. These birds stand about three feet high with a five-foot wing span.

The height of these birds allows them to see over tall grasses so they can be on the lookout for predators while feeding. The crowns actually serve as camouflage, letting the birds to blend into the tall grasses. The long, broad wings serve well during migration. These birds nest on the ground, preferring marshy areas and damp meadows to raise their chicks. The dances of these birds during breeding season are spectacular and involve swaying, jumping (up to eight feet in the air), and producing loud, bugle-like calls.

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