The vulnerable blue crane (Antropoides paradiseus)
The graceful blue crane is SA’s national bird – and a species utterly dependent on the goodwill of private landowners, especially farmers.
Habitat and distribution
Open grassland and Karoo veld. At night, blue cranes usually return to a preferred roosting site, often a shallow vlei, where they can stand together in the water, relatively safe from predators. In the past, the species was largely restricted to the grassland biome of South Africa, and was therefore most common in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Free State, Gauteng, parts of North West, the north-eastern Cape and the eastern parts of the Karoo in the Northern Cape. The grassland biome is under severe threat, with vast tracts of land transformed by agriculture, forestry, mining and urban development. Fortunately, the blue crane has proven highly adaptable by learning to exploit crop lands, which are, in effect, artificial grasslands. Blue cranes are now more common in the south-western Cape than anywhere else in South Africa.
Although these birds have not yet been spotted in our area, the Rhenosterspruit Conservancy has had some sightings.
The blue crane breeding season is between August and April. DUring this time the birds pair off and choose a breeding site.
The nest itself is a simple scrape on dry ground or in a wetland.
Parents take turns incubating the eggs for about 30 days. There are usually two chicks in a brood. They leave the nest shortly after hatching, but are fed by the mother for the first two weeks, and stay close to their parents until the next breeding season.
Plants, insects and small vertebrates, such as lizards and frogs, form the blue crane menu. Seeds, seedlings, soft leaves, roots and bulbs are also eaten. Blue cranes will feed on newly-sown seeds and young seedlings in crop lands only when little else is available. They generally prefer to forage in stubble lands or pastures.
Blue crane populations have suffered steep declines in population numbers in grassland habitats. The destruction of the grassland through urbanisation, forestation and agriculture reduces the habitat of the blue crane. The cranes depend on wetland, and these habitats are lost at an alarming rate in South Africa.
Poisoning is a significant threat. This is either intentional, where the blue crane is targeted, usually because it is becoming a nuisance. Poisoning may also be unintentional, where another species is targeted or poison is accidentally taken in while feeding. Most poisoning cases occur when poison bait is placed to catch other species (e.g. Helmeted Guineafowl) or where birds feed in an area where insecticides have been spread and ingest poison contaminated insects and seeds.
Cranes may also become entangled in farm fences. Chick may drown when they drink from water troughs or water holes which are cement-lined with a high lip. Nests may be disturbed by animals (notably dogs) or humans.
Overhead cables pose a threat across the country. The risk of flying into cables increases where the cables are set against a dark backdrop (like a mountain range).
Cranes are highly sort after birds in the pet bird market and are collected to adorn gardens. Chicks are removed from the wild to satisfy this thoughtless and selfish demand.
Photographs are courtesy of E Stockenstrrom and G Orbel. Blue Cranes photographed in an undisclosed location in the Crocodile River Reserve