Some twenty years ago we used to see a solitary Blue Crane [sometimes called Stanley’s Crane] in the Clarens Swartland area before it became built up. Cranes pair up for life and are seldom seen apart: in fact, this lifelong devotion shown by mated pairs has become a symbol of attachment in human folklore. Our friend, sadly, must have lost his mate. Normally cranes are gregarious and occur in flocks of 30 to 40 birds and in some areas up to 3-400 birds. There are still a few cranes in our part of the world but you will be fortunate, indeed, to see one.
Blue Cranes are easily recognised : tall, pale grey in colour, long neck with a large ‘bulbous head’ and long dark wingtip feathers which trail to the ground. They are often found in parks and large gardens where their beauty and stately appearance greatly enhances these surroundings “Courtship in cranes is one of Nature’s most evocative sights and involves both members of a pair dancing together; leaping into the air with open wings, while emitting their powerful resonant calls”.
Blue Cranes are birds of the dry grassy plains towards the eastern reaches of the central highveld extending through the Karoo and down to the grain lands of the Cape. They tend to breed in the higher areas, returning each year to the same nesting site and then migrating to the lower altitudes for the winter. Cranes are amongst the tallest of flying birds and can cover long distances between their breeding sites and winter quarters. They feed on insects and seeds and like open spaces. Unfortunately, they like foraging in grain producing lands where they can cause quite some damage. This has led to their persecution in many instances and combined with the ever spreading human population growth adversely affecting the bird’s natural habitat; both deliberate and accidental poisoning; and the large scale conversion of grasslands into agricultural and forest areas has led to the rapid decline in their numbers to the extent that cranes are now on the environmental endangered list. There is legislation aimed at protecting cranes and there is organization working to save cranes from extinction by educating and informing the public about the birds; attempting to conserve what is left of their habitat; restricting illegal trading in cranes, and enlisting the aid of farmers in their conservation.
It is ironic that we seem to have so little regard for our National Bird that it is threatened with extinction due largely to human development in the bird’s natural habitat. One can take the view that its place on the National emblem has been usurped by the Secretary Bird, although the Blue Crane is honoured by its appearance on our five-cent coin.
The amaKhosa people in the Transkei regard Cranes as very special. When a man distinguishes himself by his bravery or in any other distinguished way, his Chief may decorate him by presenting him with the feathers of this bird at a special ceremony for heroes, after which the hero may wear the feathers in his hair.
References: Roberts Birds of South Africa, Cranes and Farmers Endangered Wildlife Trust