For the first time, a group of bird lovers has circled the globe to see every living species of crane, all 15 of them.
The majority of these huge birds, 11 species total, are considered vulnerable to extinction or endangered. In North America, the iconic whooping crane nearly went extinct, plummeting to a population of about 20 by the 1940s, before conservationists launched an aggressive captive-breeding program that brought the birds back.
Jennifer Speers, a member of the board of the International Crane Foundation, an organization that helped bring back the whooping crane and which continues to advocate for the animals, decided she wanted to see more than just “whoopers” and sandhill cranes, the two species that live in North America. So she and George Archibald, a researcher and co-founder of the organization, arranged to travel the globe and see all 15 species in a span of six weeks, which had never been done.
George Archibald and colleagues are surrounded by demoiselle cranes in India. Courtesy of George Archibald
The duo started in Hokkaido, Japan, where they saw red-crowned cranes, slender white birds with red-and-black heads whose numbers are declining. Then they hopped across the Sea of Japan to China, to see the most endangered species: Siberian cranes. The vast majority of these creatures winter at Poyang Lake, in north-central China, and they normally feed on aquatic plants. But scientists worry that the lake could dry up or be adversely altered by local dams. Archibald notes that the crane’s normal food wasn’t abundant this year, so most were found in nearby farm fields, feeding on lotus roots or waste rice. At Poyang they also observed white-naped, hooded and Eurasian cranes.
Their next destination was Bhutan, where they saw the elusive black-necked crane. These animals live in the vicinity of Tibetan plateau and were the last to be described by scientists (in 1876), due to their remoteness. Next, in India, they saw demoiselle and sarus cranes, the latter of which is the largest crane species, standing six feet tall.
It's taboo to hurt cranes in Ethiopia; Wattled cranes, at Boyo Lake, trust the local people not to harm them. George Archibald
Onto Africa, where the duo first landed in Ethiopia. Archibald marveled at the locals’ love for the native wattled and black-crowned cranes. It’s taboo to injure or kill the birds, and the animals seemed to have learned not to fear locals, allowing people to get within feet of them.
The group then flew down to South Africa to peep blue and grey crowned cranes. The first is a smallish bird with flowing tail-feathers, revered by the Zulu (whose royalty wear their feathers). The grey crowned crane is one of the most brilliantly colored crane species, possessing a goldish plume on its head and a red sac on its chin. The pair then crossed the Indian Ocean to reach Australia, where they took in more sarus cranes and the brolga, a grayish, tall species that is doing relatively well.
An Australian brolga, a type of crane found on that continent and in New Guinea. Jennifer Speers
Finally, they returned to the United States, ending up in Texas at an event called the whooping crane festival, which raises awareness about the animals, whose wild population has been brought back to just under 500. One of the primary threats to their survival is gunfire; in the past five years, more than 20 whooping cranes have been shot dead.
A man and two red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido, Japan. Jennifer Speers
Archibald says the trip was a great opportunity to check in on crane populations around the world and to coordinate with conservationists in those countries, to help prevent the birds from becoming extinct.
Wattled cranes in Ethiopia, in Rift Valley's Boyo Lake. George Archibald