It walks with grace and serenity, as though the life of the country it symbolizes, depends on its every step. The Crested Crane – chosen as Uganda’s Crest (national symbol) nearly 100 years ago, is one of the most cherished birds in the country.
Commonly called the Crested Crane, it is a bird of national significance to Uganda, occupying a prime position on the country’s national flag and coat of arms.
The Grey Crowned Crane, scientifically known as Balearica regulorum gibbericeps, inhabited Uganda’s swamps and fields long before the coming of tribes in our territory.
The unusual gracefulness of the elegant Crowned Crane, aptly typifying the country and its people, attracted then Governor of Uganda -Sir Frederick Jackson who, in 1893, chose it to embellish the Union Jack with its exquisite form and heraldic dignity.
With a crown of stiff gold-colored feathers on its head, a bright red gular sac and body made of gray, brown, gold and white patches, the grey crowned crane stands out for its striking features.
The Crane is definitely an object of great beauty. It is a tall bird standing well over three feet, on long-slender black legs. Its neck is almost as long as its legs and towards the base, pointed pearl-grey feathers are elongated to form an ornamental fringe.
The tail feathers, comparatively short, are the color of dried straw. When at rest, the Crowned Crane seems to be enveloped in a cape of exquisite delicacy with its multi-colored head where the three colors of the Uganda’s Flag (Black, Yellow, Red) seem to be represented. The conspicuous velvety black forehead, yellowish crest and the vivid bright red wattles, make the Crested Crane an elegant creature, befitting its emblematic role.
There are 16 different species of Cranes in the world, four of which are found in Africa, including the ‘great’ Grey Crowned Crane, the Uganda national symbol. All these willowy creatures in the world are in one way or another, facing unfavourable conditions brought about by their ‘greatest friend’, Man, who works for their ‘survival and protection’.
Crowned Cranes generally inhabit dry and wet open areas including marshes, damp fields, and open margins of lakes and rivers, but rarely associated with open waters. In Uganda, the Crowned Cranes prefer freshly-ploughed fields to grasslands and short to tall grass.
Lifestyle: Courtship, feeding and Breeding
The grey crowned crane has a breeding display involving dancing, bowing, and jumping. It has a booming call which involves inflation of the red gular sac. It also makes a honking sound quite different from the trumpeting of other crane species. Both sexes dance, and immature birds join the adults. Dancing is an integral part of courtship, but also may be done at any time of the year.
Their food consists of plant and animal matter including grass and sedge seeds, millet, rice, peas, corn, mollusks, crustaceans, insects (grasshoppers and flies), fish, amphibians and reptiles. They feed by rapidly pecking at food but they sometime uproot plants and rarely dig. They prefer seed heads of grasses and sedges.
Crowned Cranes are monogamous and pair for life. Though they may appear in flocks at a breeding area, they separate in pairs and nest singly controlling territories of about 1-1.5km2 defended by both sexes. They perform a series of courtship displays and excel in dancing, displaying their grace and beauty to the fullest. They twirl and curtsy to one another, with their wings wide open and held high above their backs. In this strange position, with the bill pointed skywards, it gives out a deep, booming love-call delivered from a fully inflated throat.
Man and the Crested Crane
To the many different tribes of Africa, the call of the Crowned Crane suggests many word variations and the sounds are varied and full. Thus to a Muganda the call is Ng’aali; to a Swahili M’waari; to an Acholi, O’welo; to Zulu of South Africa, the sound is Maahem and the same sound is Muraaho to a Munyarwanda.
Different tribes and people have learnt through time how to interact with the Crane, and in most areas, the Crane helps to tell people the time of the day through their calls which are done at specific times of the day. They are regarded as the birds of joy and relaxation in most parts of the country. For instance, when people clap and sing a particular song, the Cranes dance by nodding their heads. This happens in all places where Cranes exist.
It is estimated that number of Grey Crowned Cranes in Uganda has reduced from more than 70,000 in 1970s to less than 10,000 in 2011. The global threat status declined from near-threatened to vulnerable to endangered in less than five years, and indication of global concern on the survival of Cranes in the region.
It is also estimated that the large number of the Cranes we see today are old individuals who may not survive beyond 15-20 years.
Most crested cranes live in mixed wetland habitats, on riverbanks, around dams and open grassland. As a result, they often forage on agricultural lands, which are close to wetlands or riverbanks, feeding on grass seeds, small toads, frogs, insects and other invertebrates.
It is this easy co-existence with humans that is putting the cranes’ survival at risk.
Crested cranes breed in wetlands and this is a good reason for us to see that the environment is conserved.
Crowned Cranes are known to breed in swamps but a combination of increasing human population has tasked these beautiful birds to leave with man due to the demand for wetlands. Eastern and south-western Uganda are the major critical areas for the survival of the Crane.
The level of human activity in swamps influences the ability of Cranes to care for the young and successful breeding. The loss of habitat, therefore, combined with the species low reproductive rate and frequent capture of young, raises concern about the Crane’s survival.
There is no bird more truly representative of Uganda with its meadowlands and sparking green grass, than the Grey Crowned Crane. Throughout the country, there is not a natural sound more typical than the trumpeting of the Crested Cranes as they move to their feeding grounds or fly to the roosting sites in the dimming light of evening.