Wattled Crane: The Ultimate Guide

The elegant curved back and long legs of the Wattled crane marks it as a member of the crane family, while the unusual wattle of the chin sets it apart. A curiously graceful bird, with an incredible height and immense wingspan, the wattled crane is a fascinating bird to study.

Learning about the wattled crane is vital, because their natural home of the African wetland is under threat. The more we know about them, the more we can do to keep them safe, ensuring generations to come can enjoy this fabulous crane.

This guide aims to teach you everything you need to know about the wattled crane.


The wattled crane has an incredibly graceful appearance, due to the long legs, slender neck, and thin beak. It’s long and sloping body shows, however, shows the size of the wattled crane – it’s the largest crane in Africa, and the second-largest member of the crane family overall.

They can reach a height of 5’9” (1.75 m), and even the smallest are close to 5’ (1.5 m). The red skin on the face gives way to a gray feathered cap, and a snow-white neck. Their body is dark on the underside, with wings of a lighter gray. The wingspan is 7’7” – 8’6” (230 – 260 cm). They weigh between 14 and 20 lb (6.4 – 9 kg).

The most distinctive physical feature of the wattled crane is the wattle that it’s named after. The wattle is a flap of skin that hangs down from the chin, with red bumpy skin on the front side, and white feathers elsewhere.

Juveniles lack the stark coloring of the adult. Instead, they’ve a tawny brown color all over.

Male vs Female

There’s almost no difference between the male and female wattles crane, although the male is slightly larger on average. 

Are They Aggressive?

The wattled crane is not particularly aggressive when left alone, but can be become violent in defense of a mate or territory. They’ve also shown aggression towards humans when in captivity. With a powerful body and a sharp beak, an aggressive wattled crane can be dangerous.

What Adaptations Do They Have?

Life in the wetlands isn’t always easy, and the wattled crane has a few adaptations to make things more comfortable. For a start, their sharp and long bills help them to dig through the water, searching out their next meal. Their long legs give them speed, and help them wade through the waters.

A wattled crane has also adapted to follow the water source. Some cranes will spend time in seasonal wetlands, needing to move on when the water dries up. They can, in the meantime, feed off the seeds of the grasslands.

The wattle itself is an adaptation, although an odd one. It’s primarily used to signal emotion. When the wattled crane is feeling particularly aggressive, the wattle increases in size. When they’re feeling submissive, the wattle shrinks back.

Breeding/Reproduction Behavior

Breeding for the wattled crane begins with courtship. This is an intricate and beautiful ritual, involving a dance of bowing, head tossing, and jumping. A male will also build a nest, in an attempt to attract a potential mate.

The wattled crane is monogamous, and a successful breeding ritual will often result in a bond for life. When the wattled crane breeds depends heavily on the water levels.

In more northern territories, breeding occurs generally between July and August. Further south, it can last from April to October.

The wattled crane doesn’t start breeding until it is around 7 years old.

Their Calls/Sounds

A short, sharp call is made by the wattled crane to indicate alarm. However, they are usually a quiet species. High-pitched noises and far-reaching calls are only made when necessary for communication.

What Do They Eat? (Diet)

The wattled crane is omnivorous, but it mostly chooses to eat plants. When feeding, the crane might submerge its entire head in the water, and use the sharp bill to dig for food.

They like to eat sedge vegetation and water lilies. However, they will take food as it comes. Tubers and rhizomes of submerged sedges are often on the menu, alongside insects and frogs that might be nearby.

They will eat grass seeds, but do so far less than other African crane species. A wattled crane will spend much of its day looking for food.

Where Do They Live? (Habitat)

Wattled Crane

Wattled cranes are found on the wetlands, and prefer habitats such as large river beds. 50% of the population can be found in Zambia, although the largest concentration of wattled cranes is in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Some can even be found in the highlands of Ethiopia. The wattled crane can be found across eleven African nations, but their habitat is shrinking. The wetlands are absolutely vital to their way of life, even though they do retreat to the grasslands on occasion to forage for food.

What Are Their Nesting Habits?

The nest is constructed during the courtship dance, and it’s a simple structure. Made mostly out of vegetation on open water, wattled cranes will sometimes adopt an old goose nest as their own. Nests tend to be kept quite far apart from each other, as the crane can be territorial.

The wattled crane produces a small clutch of eggs, only 1-2. Even then, only one chick is likely to be cared for. The incubation period will last between 33 and 36 days, with both parents playing a part.

Both parents also help with the feeding and raising of the chick. The young are fully fledged after 3 to 4 months, but will generally remain with their parents for a year, until the next breeding season.

How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)

The average lifespan of the wattled crane is about 20-30 years. As newly hatched chicks, the wattled crane has one of the longest fledgling periods of any crane.

It can take up to four months for the crane to fledge, during which time the parents teach the chick to forage. Having fledged, the juvenile remains with the parents until the next breeding season. At this point, it will often gather in flocks with other juveniles.

It isn’t until the crane is 7 or 8 years old that it first starts to breed, and the mate it chooses can be a partner for life. The wattled crane forms flocks with other pairs and unwanted cranes, which can grow to be quite large. Fiercely territorial, the wattled crane will defend its flock when necessary.

What Predators Do They Have?

The wattled crane doesn’t have much to worry about from predators, in large part thanks to their significant size. At almost 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and with a weight of up to 18 pounds (8.1kg), it would be a brave predator who takes the wattled crane on. Not to mention the long bill and impressive wingspan.

While the adults are relatively safe, the juveniles have a little more to worry about. A wattled crane chick has to stay alert for jackals in particular. When a parent senses a predator approaching, the crane chick will often be hurried back to the protection of the long grass.

What Are Their Feathers Like?

A dark gray body with lighter gray wings makes up the majority of feathers on the wattled crane. The neck is white, but the head is topped with a gray cap. The wattled crane has elongated inner secondary wing feathers, which stretch down to resemble a long tail.

What Does Their Poop Look Like?

As a large bird with a voracious appetite, the poop of the wattled crane is fairly significant. However, as they live on the wetlands, it doesn’t have much chance of building up.

Do They Migrate?

Traditional migration isn’t observed in the wattled crane, but they do move about. Those who spend their time around small, seasonal wetlands will need to move when the water dries up. They move as a flock, searching out the best place to stop.

Wattled cranes who live near large, permanent wetlands are unlikely to migrate.

Conservation Status

The wattled crane is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN list, which is in the “threatened” category. A significant decline in the numbers of wattled cranes has been observed in recent years, and it’s projected to continue unless protections are put in place.

Wattled cranes rely on the wetland for food and nests, and as the wetlands shrink, so do the number of cranes. Global warming and human development are both contributing to a loss of habitat for this incredible species.

Wattled cranes, as well as their eggs, are also hunted illegally for food.

Fun Facts

The wattle can be used to show the emotions of the wattled crane. When they’re feeling aggressive, the wattle grows in size. If they’re feeling scared, or anxious, it shrinks instead. 

Courtship for the wattled crane is an intricate ritual. As well as moving their bodies around, they throw twigs, sticks, and plant life in the air, in the hopes of impressing a mate.

When looking for something to eat, a wattled crane will often stick its entire head underwater.