THE GREAT Crane Project

by K.S. Gopi Sundar


With their loud, resonant bugling calls, elaborate dances, impressive migrations, and long lifespans, cranes are difficult to miss. There are only 15 crane species worldwide but they more than make up for this by living in many different kinds of landscapes, which they share with an incredible array of species, and alongside a range of human activities.

Extinction of a species is permanent. On the other hand, local extinction, or the dying off of a species from one region, is not necessarily forever. Using a combination of art, adventure and science, conservationists can restore species to a part of its range. One such example is currently underway in the United Kingdom. This is the case of the Common or the Eurasian Crane.

As its name suggests, these cranes are pretty common in Europe and lakhs of these birds spend winter in India each year. This is the second most abundant crane species in the world. It used to be very common in the UK as early as 400 years ago. These cranes were a regular part of people’s diet in the Iron Age. Even King Henry VIII famously served 5,000 of them at one of his lavish dinners. Having long lives, these cranes made very good pets, and were kept alongside cats and dogs in homes. Hunting, combined with loss of wetland habitat, drove them to extinction in the UK. A pair of them was blown into the country during a storm in 1976 — making national news — but these two stayed on and even bred in the wild.

Cranes lay only one or two eggs each year, of which usually only one survives. It was not logical to expect a few chance pairs blown into the country to grow to a large population. Several wildlife conservation organisations decided to help the species’ restoration through a dedicated restoration project that started in 2010.

Scientists identified a wild, breeding population in Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve in Germany as a good source for this restoration. They picked up eggs from wild birds in Germany, flew them to the UK, and then crated the precious eggs to a place called Slimbridge where they are hatched in captivity. Cranes are perfect for such projects since wild pairs tend to replace lost eggs by laying a second clutch. No harm done to the wild population!

The chicks are then transported to Somerset where the Moors (slushy, swampy wetland areas) are vast. Once in the Moors, an elaborate drama begins, that is based on the biology of the cranes. Cranes are a group of birds termed as precocial.

This means that chicks are born fuzzy with feathers, and able to follow their parents within a few hours. They tend to imprint on the first things they hear and see. Imprinting starts even when they are in the egg. Crane adults have a special call they keep using to communicate with the unhatched chicks. This way, the chicks recognise their parents as soon as they are hatched.  Scientists working with crane eggs and babies therefore have to take great care not to get them imprinted on human noises, or humans.

The cranes would mistake humans as their parents if this happened! For a restoration project, that would end in failure since cranes would not try and meet with their own kind. The scientists in the UK have to, therefore, play crane calls to the eggs. When the chicks hatch, the scientists have to wear costumes that hide them, and they have to pretend to be cranes! A long stick with a painted head of the Common Crane serves as the go-between.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 20 February 2013.

Photo credit: K.S. Gopi Sundar