International Crane Foundation


Black-necked crane

Grus nigricollis

HEIGHT: 115 cm, 4 ft
WEIGHT: 5.35 kg, ~12 lbs
POPULATION: ~5,000 – 6,000
TREND: Declining
STATUS: IUCN: VU; Cites Appendix I; ESA: E; CMS I, II


Black-necked Cranes, the alpine crane, were the last species of crane discovered and described by ornithologists (1876), due to the remoteness of their range.


Adults have nearly bare red crowns and lores (area between eye and bill) that are sparsely covered by black hairlike feathers. The rest of the head and the upper part of the neck are black, except for a small white or light gray spot extending backward from the rear and lower edges of each eye. The body is ashy gray, becoming almost whitish on the underparts. The tail is black, and the upper tail coverts are grayish. The primaries and secondaries are black. Eyes are yellow, legs and toes are black. Males and females are virtually indistinguishable, although males tend to be slightly larger in size.

Juveniles have yellow brown feathers on the crown, and a gray abdomen. Primaries and secondaries are black, the feathers of the back are grayish yellow, and black and white feathers alternate on the neck. By one year of age the bird resembles the adult. Download FREE Black-necked Crane images.


Black-necked Cranes breeding range includes much of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in China, with a small breeding population occurring in adjacent Ladakh in India. Wintering grounds include lower elevations of the Qinghai-Tibet and Yunnan-Guizhou Plateaus in China, with some birds occurring in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.


Click to view range map.


During the breeding season Black-necked Cranes use high altitude wetlands. Foraging occurs in shallow marshes, streams, and pastures. The cranes winter in lower elevation agricultural valleys where they feed mainly on waste grains. In both breeding and wintering areas Black-necked Cranes are quite tolerant of people and regularly feed near human settlements and domestic livestock, perhaps because local religious beliefs protect them across much of their range.

Mated pairs of cranes, including Black-necked Cranes, engage in unison calling, which is a complex and extended series of coordinated calls. The birds stand in a specific posture, usually with their heads thrown back and beaks skyward during the display. Black-necked females usually initiate the display and utter two calls for each male call. All cranes also engage in dancing, which includes various behaviors such as 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. Black-necked Cranes nest in high altitude freshwater wetlands. Nests are built on small, pre-existing grassy islands or in the water, and consist of mud, grass, sedges, and other aquatic plants. Females usually lay two eggs and incubation (by both sexes) lasts 30-33 days. The male takes the primary role in defending the nest against possible danger. Chicks fledge (first flight) at approximately 90 days.


All cranes are omnivorous. Black-necked Cranes forage on plant roots and tubers, insects, snails, shrimp, fish, frogs, lizards, voles, and waste grains.


Loss and degradation of habitat are the main threats facing the Black-necked Cranes. The problems are the most serious in the wintering areas, where wetlands are extensively affected human activity including irrigation, dam construction, draining, and grazing pressure. In Tibet, widespread changes in traditional agricultural practices have reduced the availability of waste barley and spring wheat.

ICF in Action

Beginning in 1990, ICF and the Tibet Plateau Institute of Biology began a cooperative five-year study of Black-necked Cranes in Tibet. Approximately 3,900 cranes were located in south central Tibet. After the comprehensive study, annual winter counts were continued. In 1991 a breeding survey was conducted primarily in northern Tibet. By 1993 a management plan for wintering Black-necked Cranes was completed and translated into Chinese.

ICF, in cooperation with the Guizhou Environmental Protection Bureau and the New York based Trickle Up Program, started a model program at the Cao Hai Nature Reserve in south-central China which 1) promotes community development with small business grants as incentives to start alternative businesses that will be less detrimental to the reserve’s wetlands, 2) promotes reforestation of denuded slopes surrounding the reserve to reduce erosion and silt build up in the wetland, and 3) will develop management plans for the reserve.

Since 1996 ICF has worked with the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature Bhutan (RSPN) to study and protect Black-necked Cranes and their habitats. RSPN & ICF sponsor an annual crane festival in the Phobjikha Valley where local people sing, do crane dances and compete in archery contests. ICF brings eco-tours to the valley for the festival, which benefits the local economy and protects cranes.

In 1998, ICF, Bhutanese, and Japanese colleagues placed a satellite radio transmitter on a Black-necked Crane in Bhutan. During the spring migration the bird was followed to a staging area near Shigetze in southern Tibet and then on to a breeding area in north-central Tibet near Shensa. In the summer of 2000 a joint team from China, ICF, and Bhutan went to that area, captured 18 pre-fledged chicks, and placed color bands on their legs. Some of these cranes were observed in flocks of cranes wintering near Shigatse, but as yet none have been spotted in Bhutan.

In 2001, ICF put income from the new Black-necked Crane Conservation Fund directly to work for these cranes in China and Bhutan. Colleagues in Tibet repeated field surveys and by 2002 most of the major wintering areas were protected within a new Black-necked Crane Nature Reserve.

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.