Crowned cranes are the smallest of the 15 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 elaborate dances during breeding season. The dances are spectacular and involve swaying, jumping (up to eight feet in the air), and producing loud, bugle-like calls. Young chicks begin dance practice early. It is believed this helps develop their coordination.
West African crowned cranes are also known as black crowned cranes because their bodies are mostly black with white wing markings. Their relatives, the east African (gray) crowned cranes are the more southerly species.
The west African crowned crane is locally regarded as an omen of rain because the birds migrate to temporary wetlands to breed as the rainy season begins. Both parents construct the nest in thick vegetation to hide the eggs and chicks from threats. The height of these birds allows them to see over tall grasses so they can be on the lookout for predators. The crown feathers actually serve as camouflage, helping the birds blend into the tall grasses.
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.
These cranes live in open grasslands, marshes, and meadows near lakes and streams in Africa, from Chad and Cameroon to Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Crowned cranes feed primarily on grass, seeds, and grains but will consume invertebrates and the roots of some plants. They will also take advantage of cultivated crops including millet, corn, and rice.
These cranes are between three and four feet tall with a five-foot wingspan. They weigh seven to eight pounds and live an average of 20–25 years.