International Crane Foundation


Black Crowned Crane

Balearica pavonina

HEIGHT: ~104 cm, 3 ft
WEIGHT: ~3.6 kg, 8 lbs
TREND: Declining
SUBSPECIES: Balearica pavonina pavonina (West African), Balearica pavonina ceciliae (Sudan)
STATUS: IUCN: VU; Cites Appendix II


Black Crowned Cranes occupy an important place in the cultural life of the Turkana (Kenya) pastoralists as messengers of peace. The cranes were protected because they were believed to get rid of livestock pests and to guard waterholes and swamps.


The body of the Black Crowned Crane is mostly black, with distinctive white upper and under wing coverts. The head is topped with a crown of stiff golden feathers. Cheek patches are red and white. The subspecies are most easily distinguished by the differences in the coloration of their cheek patches. In the West African subspecies, the lower half of the cheek patch is red; in the Sudan subspecies, the red extends into the upper half of the cheek patch. The gular sac under the chin is small and dark. The gular sac is similar to a wattle, except that it can be inflated. Legs, toes, and bill are black. All crowned cranes have the ability to perch because their long hind toe (hallux) allows for grasping. Males and females are virtually indistinguishable, although males tend to be slightly larger. Juveniles are generally blackish, the upper body feathers are edged with rufous, and the lower body feathers are sandy buff. The nape is brown, the face is feathered and buffy, and the crown is spiky and golden buff. Download FREE Black Crowned Crane images.


The Black Crowned Crane is found in the Sahel and Sudan savanna region of Africa, from Senegal and Gambia on the Atlantic coast to the upper Nile River basin in Sudan and Ethiopia. The West African Crowned Crane (estimated population 15,000) occupies the western part of this range from Senegal to Chad in north central Africa, and is divided into eight or more disjunct populations. The population in Nigeria, where it was once abundant, and is recognized as the national bird, has been reduced to just a few individuals. The Sudan Crowned Crane (estimated population 25,000) occurs in eastern Africa, with the largest concentrations in southern Sudan.


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Black Crowned Cranes use both wet and dry open habitats, but prefer freshwater marshes, wetter grasslands, and the edges of water bodies. Black Crowned Cranes are considered both year-round residents and local migrants, flocking during the dry non-breeding season. Black Crowned Cranes begin their unison display in varied ways. The main vocalization is a booming call where the crane will inflate the gular sac underneath its chin and push the air out. This calling is done with the head laid against the top of the neck and then tilted back. The crane also produces peculiar honks that are quite different from the loud, bugling calls of other crane species that have much longer coiled tracheas. All cranes engage in dancing, which includes various behaviors such as head pumping, bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing, and wing flapping. Dancing can occur at any age and is commonly associated with courtship, however, it is generally believed to be a normal part of motor development for crane s and can serve to thwart aggression, relieve tension, and strengthen the pair bond. The Black Crowned Crane’s circular nest platforms are built of grasses and sedges within or along the edges of densely vegetated wetlands. Females lay 2-5 eggs and incubation (by both sexes) lasts 28-31 days. Both parents guard the nest. When the female leaves the nest to forage, the male often guards by perching on a nearby tree. The male will sound an alarm call if a threat is perceived. Chicks fledge (first flight) at 60-100 days.


All cranes are omnivorous. Principal foods of the Black Crowned Crane include tips of grasses, seeds, insects, and other invertebrates, and small vertebrates. They tend to forage in upland areas frequently near herds of domestic livestock where invertebrates occur in greater abundance. Seeds from agricultural crops are a most important food source. Unlike Grey Crowned Cranes, farmers do not seem to consider Black Crowned Cranes as agricultural pests.


Illegal capture and trade for the pet industry is the most serious threat to Black Crowned Cranes. There is an ancient tradition in West African countries such as Mali, to keep domesticated Black Crowned Cranes at household compounds. However, in the past 30 years, international trade in the species has accelerated. Other threats facing the Black Crowned Crane are the loss, transformation, and degradation of habitat. In West Africa, wetlands and grasslands have been devastated by natural forces (drought) and by the intensification of human land use (overgrazing, destruction of tree cover.)

ICF in Action

In 1999, ICF began a partnership with Wetlands International to assess the overall status, distribution, and threats to the Black Crowned Crane across the Sahel region of Africa. In 2000 and 2001, we coordinated a comprehensive population survey in twenty African countries. A conservation action plan was developed and published. To address the most serious threat, illegal capture and trade, ICF and Wetlands International launched a regional program to understand the market forces behind the crane trade and to investigate alternative income opportunities for crane traders. We are also collaborating on several other projects, including the survey of crane breeding and movements in the Senegal River Valley, crane trade and community-based conservation in northern Nigeria, crane conservation in the rice-growing zone of coastal Africa, and status surveys in the Sudan. To learn more about conservation initiatives for the Black Crowned Crane, click here.

Species accounts derived from: Johnsgard PA. 1983. Cranes of the world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Meine CD, Archibald GW. 1996. The cranes: status survey and conservation action plan. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.