Black crowned-crane (Balearica pavonina)

Also known as: dark crowned crane, Sudan crowned crane, West African crowned crane
French: Grue couronnée
GenusBalearica (1)
SizeLength: 100 – 105 cm (2)
Wingspan: 180 – 200 cm (2)
Weight3 – 4 kg (2)

The black crowned-crane is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The beautiful stately black crowned-crane (Balearica pavonina), threatened by the loss of wetland habitat, gets its name from its dark slaty-grey to black plumage (4), and the crown of stiff, golden feathers atop the head (5). Distinctive white feathers are at the leading edge of the wing and a small pouch of red skin hangs under the chin (4) (5). This is known as the gular sac, which is similar to a wattle, but can be inflated to enable the bird to emit a long sequence of low, booming calls (5). The legs and toes are black, and the long hind toe enables the black crowned-crane to grasp to perches (5). The black crowned-crane has bare cheek patches that are white and reddish (4). There are two black crowned-crane subspecies; in the West African black crowned crane (Balearica pavonina pavonina) the lower half of the cheek patch is red, whereas in the Sudan black crowned crane(Balearica pavonina ceciliae) the red extends to the upper half of the cheek patch (2) (5). Male black crowned-cranes are larger than females, and juveniles differ by having grey to brown plumage with a brown crown and nape (2). 

B. p. pavonina occurs in scattered populations in sub-Saharan West Africa from Senegal and Gambia to Lake Chad. B. p. ceciliae inhabits sub-Saharan Africa from Chad to Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya (2). 

The preferred habitats of the black crowned-crane are freshwater marshes, wet grasslands and the edges of lakes, ponds and rivers (2) (6). They also forage in rice fields and wet cropland, or on dry land close to wetlands (6).   

The black crowned-crane appears to eat anything it comes across; its feeds on insects such as grasshoppers and flies, millipedes, crabs, amphibians and reptiles (2) (4). It also consumes grass seeds and sometimes grain, and may do some crop damage through its feeding habits (4). Food is normally pecked off the surface, but the black crowned-crane also stamps its feet in an attempt to disturb potential prey hidden in the ground (2).  

The nest of the black crowned-crane is usually a haphazard pile of nearby vegetation (4).  The nesting period generally extends from July to October, when clutches of two to five eggs are laid after an incubation period of 28 to 31 days (2). The nesting territory is guarded closely by the parents, with both the male and female chasing away any other birds that dare to enter the area (6). Shortly after hatching the chicks forage with the parents, and fledge after 60 to 100 days (2). The black crowned-crane does not apparently breed until four years of age (4). 

Both subspecies of the black crowned-crane are declining in numbers (7) due to the loss, transformation and degradation of their habitat (6). In recent decades, wetlands and grasslands throughout the crane’s range have been devastated by drought, the development and expansion of intensive agriculture, and by large scale dam, drainage and irrigation projects (2) (6). Drought and population growth has forced people to encroach onto suitable crane habitat, where wetlands are drained to expand agricultural production, and pesticides are increasingly being used which may result in the accumulation of toxins in the cranes, or reduce the amount of prey available for them (6). This has resulted in the total or near extirpation of this species in some countries; a tiny number of black crowned-cranes remain in Nigeria (where it is the national bird), and none have been recorded in Sierra Leone since the 1930s (2) (6). In some areas, the threat of habitat loss is compounded by hunting of this species (2). In certain regions, locals capture black crowned-crane chicks, or take eggs and raise the young in captivity (4), and they are also trapped for the legal international market (1) (6). This is a particularly serious threat in Mali, where today, there are more domesticated black crowned-cranes than there are in the wild (8). In Chad, Nigeria and other countries, this bird is also captured for food (6).   

The black crowned-crane is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that any trade in this species should be carefully regulated (3). Black crowned-cranes are legally protected in most countries where they occur, although this protection is often ineffective (6), and their habitats are protected within several National Parks, such as Waza National Park, northern Cameroon and Djoudj National Park, Senegal.  In 1992 the black crowned-crane working group was established, leading to the first ever range-wide surveys of the species being undertaken in 2000-2001, which was coordinated among 20 African nations (9). A number of black crowned-cranes are kept in captivity worldwide, although they are moderately difficult to keep in captivity and do not breed predictably. The potential for reintroduction programmes has been discussed, and one experimental release took place in Nigeria in 1992 (6). A number of further conservation actions have been recommended for the black crowned-crane, including public awareness campaigns on the conservation of wetlands and cranes, transferring this species from Appendix II to I of CITES, and undertaking further research and monitoring (6) (9). 

For further information on the black crowned-crane and its conservation:

For more information on the black crowned-crane and other bird species:

Authenticated (26/07/10) by Kerryn Morrison, Manager, International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership for African cranes.

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World.  Vol. 3: Hoatzin to Auks.  Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. 
  3. CITES (August 2007)
  4. Walkinshaw, L. (1973) Cranes of the World.  Winchester Press, New York.
  5. International Crane Foundation (August 2007)
  6. Meine, C.D. and Archibald, G.W. (1996) The Cranes: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan.  IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, U.K.
  7. Diagana, C.H., Dodman, T. and Sylla, S.I. (2006) Conservation action plans for the Black Crowned Crane Balearica pavonina and Black Stork Ciconia nigra in Africa. In: Boere, G.C., Galbraith, C.A. and Stroud, D.A. (Eds.) Waterbirds around the World. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh, UK.
  8. Morrison, K. (2010) Pers. comm.
  9. Williams, E., Beilfuss, R. and Dodman, T. (2003) Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for the Black Crowned Crane Balearica pavonina. International Crane Foundation and Wetlands International, USA and Senegal.