White-naped crane (Grus vipio)

Also known as: White-necked crane
Spanish: Grulla Cuelliblanca
GenusGrus (1)
SizeLength: 125 cm (2)

The white-naped crane is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (3). It is also listed on Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (4).

This large crane is identifiable by the large circle of bare, red skin around each eye. It stands out from the slate-grey feathers that cover most of the body, and the white throat and white stripe running from the crown to the nape of the neck (2). The legs are long and pinkish in colour (5). Juveniles are smaller with a brown head and pale brown throat. The white-naped crane has a high-pitched call (2).

The white-naped crane breeds at the border between Russia, Mongolia and China and in the Amur and Ussuri river basins. It migrates along the Songnen Plain and the Gulf of Bohai to its wintering grounds in the Yangtze basin in China, the demilitarised zone between North Korea and South Korea (2), and in Izumi, Japan (6).

During the breeding season, the white-naped crane is found in wetlands along river valleys, grassy marshes, wet sedge meadows, and on islands of steppe lakes with reed beds (7). In autumn, they feed in dry areas in river valleys and wheat fields in Russia and Mongolia (8). In winter, its habitat consists of freshwater lakes, farmland, and sometimes coastal flats (2).

Arriving at breeding sites at the beginning of April, white-naped cranes locate their mates from previous years and participate in a long and complicated set of coordinated calls, in amongst other crane species doing the same thing. The female initiates the display, in which both sexes extend their necks and lift their heads; the males utter one call for every two from the female (5). Once the pair bonds have been re-established they move to the nesting sites, just as the swamps start to thaw. They build a nest of dried sedges and grass in open wetlands, amongst dense vegetation. One or two eggs are laid between mid April and mid May, and during the 30 day incubation the pair will vigorously defend the territory around the nest. Once the chicks have hatched in June or early July, the parents are less vigilant about defence, spending more time feeding the chicks. They fledge after 70 to 75 days and reach sexual maturity in their third or fourth year (9).

At the breeding grounds white-naped cranes feed on insects, small vertebrates (such as frogs and toads), and the seeds, roots and tubers of sedges and other wetland plants. At the wintering grounds they take tubers, roots and fruits, and will also feed on rice grains, or the cereal seeds provided at an artificial feeding station in Izumi, Japan (9). As in all cranes species, the white-naped crane is often seen ‘dancing’: flapping the wings, tossing grass and sticks, jumping, running and bowing. As well as being involved in courtship, this is thought to reduce aggression and relieve tension (5).

Wetland habitats are commonly threatened by drainage for agriculture, and the breeding grounds of the white-naped crane are no exception. Fires also cause habitat destruction at nesting sites and can rapidly decimate a nesting colony (2). In Mongolia, drought, over-grazing and human disturbance are also major threats to breeding white-naped cranes (8).

The wintering grounds in the wetlands of the Yangtze basin are threatened by development and human disturbance. A major threat to the natural functioning of the Yangtze river basin is the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which prevents normal water flow and thereby alters habitats and fish migratory movements. The demilitarised zone between North Korea and South Korea is expected to be developed shortly, which may deprive the white-naped crane of one of its most important wintering sites. Hunting is a minor threat and pesticide poisoning a potential threat (2).

The white-naped crane is legally protected in all its range states, (for example, hunting of this species is prohibited in Mongolia (8)), and is found in many protected areas (2). An artificial feeding station in Japan has resulted in an increase in the population that winters in Japan, although whether it is due to higher breeding success or simply the relocation of other birds is not clear. A protected area at the intersection between Russia, China, Mongolia and North Korea has been proposed for the benefit of breeding white-naped cranes. It is also necessary to ensure key areas in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea are protected, and to preserve the wetlands around the Three Gorges Dam in China. There is also concern for the Japanese wintering population, as they congregate around the feeding sites, increasing the risk of an epidemic affecting a large proportion of the population. The intended solution to this problem is to encourage the birds to spread over a larger area in Japan during the winter (2).

For further information on the white-naped crane see:

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Authenticated (20/05/08) by Dr. Sundev Gombobaatar, Associate Professor, Zoology Department, National University of Mongolia. Vice President, Mongolian Ornithological Society.

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)