The Black-Necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) is classed as a medium-sized member of the crane family. It breeds in remote parts of India and Bhutan, as well as principally on the Tibetan Plateau. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating bird.
You’ll spot the Black-Necked Crane by the color of its plumage first and foremost. Its body is whitish-gray, but it has a black head and neck – hence its name. It also has black legs, and a red crown patch, with a white patch towards the rear of its eye.
Size-wise, it will fluctuate around 55 inches (139 cm) in length, and show you a wingspan of around 7.8 feet (235 cm).
So when the Black-Necked Crane stretches its wings, while it might not be as unfathomably impressive as some of the larger members of its family, you’ll certainly know about it.
Nearly 8 feet of wingspan looks extra impressive on a bird that usually doesn’t get much above 12 pounds (5.5 kg) in weight. With black primaries and secondaries and a distinctive black tail, it’s easy to tell apart from the likes of the gray-tailed Common Crane.
Male Vs Female
What is more difficult though is telling a male Black-Necked Crane from a female Black-Necked Crane.
Both sexes are similar in size and almost identical in plumage and coloration. The best way to tell which is the male and which is the female is by relatively long-term observation of their behavior patterns.
Even that’s not as simple as it sounds, though, because like many members of the Crane family, they do a lot of the work of life – mating dances, nest building, chick-rearing, territorial defence of the nesting site – united as a pair.
Ultimately, for most practical purposes, if you see a pair of Black-Necked Cranes, it’s easiest to simply count them as a pair, and understand that, in a vastly high proportion of those pairings, one will be the male and the other the female.
Are They Aggressive?
There’s no extant evidence that Black-Necked Cranes are prone to undue aggression. They are territorial, and will chase away other members of their own species – but seem unphased by other species.
Even when their eggs are potentially threatened, the nature of the birds tends more towards wariness than aggressive display. In areas where local people abound, the birds tend to grow accustomed to the presence of these locals.
In fact, it seems the birds distinguish between people in local dress, and outsiders – being especially wary of those that look like they do not belong. That’s a useful fact if you want to observe them peacefully.
What Adaptations Do They Have?
The Black-Necked Crane has adapted a life-long pair-bond to increase its chances of passing on its DNA. It has also adapted to accommodate the presence of humans in its habitat, recognizing and accepting the presence of locals.
The Black-Necked Crane is believed to form long-lasting pair bonds. During the mating season, the birds will put on dancing displays.
They will defend their territory, though notably only from other Black-Necked Cranes. Other species appear to give them little concern – which is possibly odd, given that their eggs are sometimes prey to ravens.
The Black-Necked Crane gives a loud trumpeting call, which can sound very much like those of other members of the crane family.
When they are trying to maintain contact with other members of their immediate family, they will give short, subdued nasal “kurrr” calls. These can also be used by adult birds to inform their young of a food source.
What Do They Eat? (Diet)
Black-Necked Cranes spend nearly three-quarters of their day foraging for food, with their peak feeding times in the early morning and late afternoon.
They can forage over several miles a day, and search for the tubers of sedges, for plant roots, earthworms, insects and other invertebrates, frogs and other small vertebrates.
They’re also partial, when they can get them, to fallen grains like barley, oats, and buckwheat. They’re even able to dig up some root vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, and turnips, and add them to their diet.
Where Do They Live? (Habitat)
In the summer, you’ll mostly find the Black-Necked Crane at high altitudes on the Tibetan Plateau. They move to more wetland areas like alpine meadows and river marshes for breeding season, while for the winter, they’ll head to lower altitudes and sheltered valleys.
Your best chance of seeing Black-Necked Cranes in the wild is in China, though there are smaller populations in Vietnam, Bhutan and India. For smaller populations still, check out northern Sikkim.
What Are Their Nesting habits?
The nest sites of the Black-Necked Crane are usually pre-existing mud islands in large, shallow wetlands.
They’re often content to share the nesting sites with the likes of the bar-headed goose. Interestingly, there’s little by way of consistency about the bird’s nest – it can range from a basic, barely-lines scratch in the ground to quite a complex construction of grass and rushes, with an egg-receiving depression in the center.
Usually, the one or two eggs are laid in May or June, and the birds will be hyper-vigilant and wary until the chicks are able to fly. Until that time, the birds keep moving around the hatching site.
The young are able relatively quickly to forage with the parent birds. The adults feed the young, mostly on fish, until they are strong enough to leave the nesting site entirely.
How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)
The Black-Necked Crane is one of the longer-living birds in the crane family, regularly clocking up between 20-30 years, barring accidents and predators.
What Predators Do They Have?
Black-Necked Cranes face a number of threats in the wild. Ravens are partial to the eggs of the breed, and are one of the reasons why the parent birds are hyper-vigilant between the arrival of the egg and the hatching of the young crane.
Since their territory has human beings in it, young Black-Necked Cranes are frequently put at risk by dogs belonging to herders.
In many areas, dogs belonging to herders are a major threat to young birds. Incidents in Bhutan have also recorded leopards preying on the birds while they were roosting.
Besides these natural predators, they are also prey to man-made encroachment on their habitat. The drying of wetlands has allowed predator species more access to nesting sites, increasing predation of the birds.
Loss and degradation of habitat as a whole are currently the biggest threats faced by the breed.
What Are Their Feathers Like?
The Black-Necked Crane has black primary and secondary feathers, giving the spread winds a black or dark gray look overall. The tail is black too, which makes it easy to distinguish at a distance from the similar-looking Common Crane, which has a gray tail.
The body of the Black-Necked Crane looks startlingly white compared to this black-gray look on the primaries, secondaries and tailfeathers, and compared to the black neck and head.
What Does Their Poop Look Like?
Yes, that sounds facetious, but as of 2019, researchers at the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan (a leading wintering spot for the cranes) were able to confirm that for the first time, concentrations of plastic had penetrated Bhutan’s ecosphere, by examining the poop of the Black-Necked Crane.
By examining over a thousand specimens of crane droppings, they were able to announce that having analyzed over 95% of the poop, a full 5% of it contained plastic, with a single sample containing 6.6 grams of plastic.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this is new, and hadn’t been identified in the bird’s poop before, meaning there’s been what in natural history terms is a rapid infiltration of plastic into at least the Black-Necked Crane population of Bhutan, and probably the underlying ecosystem from which they’re feeding and drinking.
Do They Migrate?
The Black-Necked Crane is known to change location at various times of the year, though we need to know more about the actual migration patterns of the species.
Some populations of the birds have been known to cross national borders, but it’s as yet unclear whether this is a true migratory behavior, or whether the nearest lowland areas to some populations just happen to be across notional human land borders.
Currently, the Black-Necked Crane is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species. This status is maintained at the moment by the fact that the birds are legally protected in China, India, and Bhutan.
Populations of the Black-Necked Crane are protected both legally and culturally in Bhutan, that includes protection from the effects of tourism.
We believe there are somewhere between 8800-11,000 individual birds currently in the wild, with a handful of major populations and some minor groups in outlying areas too.
The Black-Necked Crane is listed on Appendix I of CITES.
The Black-Necked Crane is not only legally protected across many of the regions where it makes its traditional habitat, but culturally protected too. That’s because the bird is revered in Buddhist culture.
There is a festival in honor of the Black-Necked Crane in Bhutan.
Meanwhile, the Indian union territory of Ladakh has adopted the Black-Necked Crane as its official state bird.