Fifty thousand people travel every winter to Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island. Landing in the small airport at Kushiro, they head to the north-eastern part of the island and brave subzero temperatures and lashing cold winds – all to see a bird. But it is not just any bird. The Red-crowned Crane, white and black with a red spot on its head, is exquisitely beautiful, and its gracious movements on the snow captivate our imagination.
Cranes are large birds with long legs and necks. Due to their size, grace and primeval appeal, they have a special place in many cultures. There are fifteen species of cranes in the world, living on all continents except South America and Antarctica. In Bangladesh we had the Saurus Crane (sharosh) as late as my childhood, but it has been extirpated.
Due to excessive hunting, Red-crowned Cranes were thought to have vanished from Japan. But in 1924 a small flock was discovered in a wetland in Hokkaido. To save it from extinction, the bird was declared a national monument by the Ministry of Culture. Since then, Hokkaido's farmers have fed and nurtured them, and today their population in Japan is around 2000. (Red-crowned Cranes are also found in other parts of Asia.)
Each crane has its own territory among the rivers and lakes of Hokkaido, but in winter, when the waters freeze, they move around looking for food. Farmers in the island feed them at several sanctuaries created for them to help them through the winter. The cranes congregate at these spots, to the delight of birders and bird photographers.
Pairs of Red-crowned Cranes mate for life and females lay two eggs every year. For one month, males incubate the eggs during the day and females during the night. Young cranes grow their iconic red crown after one year and reach adulthood when four or five. They live an average of 25 years.
As I watch a large group of cranes on a snow field at the Tancho Crane Sanctuary, ordinary avian movements such as preening are punctuated by flashes of exhilarating beauty and bursts of excitement. The beautiful moments arise from two events. The first is when the birds land, braking at the last minute by spreading their wings, arching them back after touchdown and taking a bow like a dancer. The second beautiful sequence occurs when a couple performs its courtship dance. They point their long beaks towards the heavens in unison, going around each other, the male strutting and flicking its wing feathers. Excitement comes when they jostle and fight, elders sometimes chasing brown-necked juveniles. Between these moments of beauty and excitement – landing, dancing and fighting last a second or two - they stand around, preen their feathers, or stab into the snow with their pale green beaks searching for food.
When the snow in the wetlands and rivers of Hokkaido melts in spring, the cranes return to their homes near the water to build nests. And the enthusiasts who came to witness their special moments go home with their hearts filled with splendid joy.
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