Black Crowned Crane: The Ultimate Guide

Black crowned cranes (Balearica pavonina) are a type of crane most commonly found in Sub-Saharan Africa. Often confused with its sister species the gray crowned crane, the black crowned crane is most distinctive for its golden crown on top of their heads.

This crane is certainly one of the most unique-looking birds on the planet, which is why it is the national bird of Nigeria!

Here is the ultimate guide to the black crowned crane. 

Appearance

The black crowned crane reaches 41” in height (1.05 m), with a wingspan of 70-78” (180-200 cm) and weighing just over 3 lbs. The most distinctive feature of this bird is its name-sake golden crown on top of their heads.

This golden crown is made of bristle-like feathers that stand completely upright, and upon closer inspection, they feature white and brown marks with a brown tip. 

The reason these birds are called “black crowned cranes” is because of their black to dark gray plumage – most notably the fluffy black pronounced forehead. Next to their beady eyes and long beaks are pink cheeks and small red gular sac.

Aside from the black plumage, these birds display white feathers on the top section of their wings, and often brown or yellow-toned feathers towards their “tails”. 

The reddish-pink cheeks vary between two species – the West African black crowned crane’s cheeks are only red on the bottom half of the cheeks, while the Sudan black crowned crane’s cheeks are red all over. 

The legs of this crane species are long, black, and slim. Their toes are also black, and a long hind toe helps with balance. 

Male vs Female

There aren’t many distinguishable characteristics between a male and female black crowned crane, except the males are generally larger than the females. 

Are They Aggressive?

Like most crane species black crowned cranes won’t enjoy being too close to humans. They’re not technically aggressive, but they can be hostile to predators (mostly humans) – especially if the human goes near their nest or their young.

These birds will not be aggressive towards other cranes, as they tend to work in pairs or small groups as they hunt for food. 

What Adaptations Do They Have?

Black crowned cranes possess a hind toe on their feet, which not only is good for their balance, but also means that they can climb trees. That’s right – black crowned cranes are the only crane species that can climb trees! 

Breeding / Reproduction Behavior

For the West African black crowned crane, the breeding season can be between May and December, and the breeding season for the Sudan black crowned crane is between July and January.

This is because it mostly depends on the wet and dry seasons of their environment. All black crowned cranes are said to be monogamous, and they will mate for life with their partner. 

The courting ritual is a unique one for the black crowned crane. Both the male and female bird will make a series of calls and movements that starts with repetitive bowing, which then moves into them spreading their wings and jumping around. It’s a bit like a dance.

If the couple are particularly affectionate, they will start preening each other. 

Once the courting and mating rituals have been successful, a female black crowned crane can lay a clutch between 1 and 3 eggs. Both parents share the role of incubating the eggs for between 23-81 days, with the females predominantly incubating them overnight.

Their male counterpart is more likely to stand in a nearby tree, overlooking the area for any potential threats that could eat the eggs. 

Once hatched, the chicks will eat from the nearby grassland areas with their parents. The fledging period occurs after 60-100 days. 

Their Calls / Sounds

The call of a black crowned crane is a comical one.

The sound of their call is like a repetitive honk, for lack of a better word. It’s low-pitched and they will continue this call if they are communicating with other cranes to warn them about predators, or if they are partaking in the courting ritual. 

What Do They Eat? (Diet)

Black Crowned Crane

Black crowned cranes will eat just about anything, which is known as a generalist feeder. Their diet consists of insects like grasshoppers and crickets, invertebrates like mollusks and millipedes, fish, frogs, and even small reptiles.

As snakes will often try to prey on the hatchlings, a black crowned crane won’t hesitate to eat it. 

These birds will mostly find their food during the wet season, but in the dry season they will forage in higher areas to find nutritious insects near livestock. This means they will also feed on lentils, chickpeas, rice, and corn.

Most of the time, they will peck at their food, but they will also stomp on the ground to get insects like worms to rise to the surface. 

Where Do They Live? (Habitat)

Black crowned cranes are found across the Sub-Saharan regions of Sudan and the Sahel in Africa. These birds are mostly found in the wetlands, grasslands, marshes, and shallow parts of rivers and lakes.

Their unique ability to climb up trees means they are often found roosting in the canopies. 

The countries within this range include Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Sierra Leone, Congo, and more. 

What Are Their Nesting Habits?

Nesting sites can range in location depending on the weather. In most cases, the nests are located on the banks of wetlands (or often in the shallow parts of wetland areas).

These nests are made of grass and sedges, and then molded into a circular shape. As it doesn’t take long for their nests to be built, nor does it take too long for the nests to be destroyed, it’s common for black crowned cranes to move their nests depending on the environment. 

How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)

In the wild, the average lifespan of a black crowned crane is unknown. As the average lifespan of a black crowned crane in captivity is 30 years, it is safe to assume that the lifespan of a wild crane is slightly shorter – possibly between 22-25 years. 

What Predators Do They Have?

Unfortunately, the biggest predator to a black crowned crane is humans. Deforestation, habitat destruction, and climate change have made a significant impact on the natural habitat of the black crowned crane, meaning they are constantly forced to find a new location to survive. 

As adults, the black crowned crane doesn’t really have many predators. This is because of their unique ability to climb trees, which means they can outrun (or out-climb) anything that could eat them.

As chicks and eggs, however, the main predators are reptiles and small mammals like snakes and lizards. Anything that can eat an egg will try to eat a crane egg. Larger birds like eagles or vultures might have a go at eating juveniles, too. 

What Are Their Feathers Like?

Black crowned cranes are predominantly built up of a dense, black (or dark gray) plumage on their body. These feathers become longer as they get further away from the body – particularly the back part of the bird that looks like a tail of feathers.

They will often have scraggly pieces of long feathers near their chest and underside. 

On the top of their head resides bristle-like feathers in a white, brown, and yellow coloring that stands like a crown. 

What Does Their Poop Look Like?

Black crowned cranes produce poop that looks similar to most cranes – it’s brown and small. 

Do They Migrate?

Black crowned cranes don’t migrate. Instead, they will move across the country they reside in (or even neighboring countries) depending on the weather to catch the dry or wet seasons. They will usually fly to their next location. 

Conservation Status

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the black crowned crane is listed as a Vulnerable species. The suggested number of black crowned cranes left in the wild is between 28,000-47,000.

This ever-decreasing figure is due to habitat loss and climate change that leads to a constant change of location and diets. Hunting, capturing, and trading of the birds has also contributed to this. 

Fun Facts

The black crowned crane is known as a messenger of peace in Kenyan cultures.

The bird is also the national bird of Nigeria for the same reason!

This crane is the only known crane that can climb and roost in trees. 

Not only will the black crowned crane dance during the courting ritual, but it is also an expression of happiness!

Though it can fly, the black crowned crane is a mostly inactive bird that won’t fly unless for moving to a new location or flying up to the treetops. 

Not during the breeding season (in summer usually), several hundreds of black crowned cranes will gather to enjoy the dry season and hunt for insects and grains. 

The black crowned crane is in the order Gruiformes and the family Gruidae, alongside their sister species – the gray crowned crane, whooping crane, and sandhill crane.