International Crane Foundation


Red-crowned Crane

Grus japonensis

HEIGHT: ~158 cm, 5 ft
WEIGHT: ~7.5 kg, 17-22 lbs
POPULATION: ~1,700 – 2,000
TREND: Declining
STATUS: IUCN: EN; ESA: E; Cites Appendix I; CMS I, II


On average, this is the heaviest crane species, weighing up to 25 pounds!


Red-crowned Cranes are the only crane species that have white primary feathers. Adult forehead and crown are covered with bare red skin, and a large white band extends from behind the eyes and meets sharply with the black lower neck. The majority of the body is pure white with the exception of black secondary and tertiary feathers. Eyes are black and legs are slatey to grayish black. Males and females are virtually indistinguishable, although males tend to be slightly larger in size.

Juveniles are a combination of white, partly tawny, cinnamon brown, and/or grayish plumage. The neck collar is grayish to coffee brown, the secondaries are dull black and brown, and the crown and forehead are covered with gray and tawny feathers. The legs and bill are similar to those of adults, but lighter in color. The primaries are white, tipped with black, as are the upper primary coverts. At two years of age the primaries are replaced with all white feathers. Download FREE Red-crowned Crane images.


Red-crowned Cranes breed in large wetlands in temperate East Asia and winter along rivers and in coastal and freshwater marshes in Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula. There are two main breeding populations: a migratory population on the East Asia mainland (northeastern China and Russia) of perhaps 1,200 birds, and a resident population on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan of about 900 birds. In the winter, the mainland population divides into two or three wintering subpopulations. The total population has fluctuated over the last century, probably reaching its lowest point in the years following World War II. Although the species has recovered in some areas, a substantial amount of habitat has been lost to agricultural development and other human activities.


Click to view range map.


Red-crowned Cranes are highly aquatic cranes with large home ranges. They feed in deeper water than other cranes. They also forage regularly on pasturelands in Japan, and in winter they use coastal salt marshes, rivers, freshwater marshes, rice paddies, and cultivated fields. Red-crowned Cranes prefer to nest in marshes with relatively deep water and standing dead vegetation. Red-crowned Cranes are well adapted to cold temperatures.

Mated pairs of cranes, including Red-crowned 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. The male always lifts up his wings over his back during the unison call while the female keeps her wings folded at her sides. Male Red-crowned Cranes initiate the display and the female utters two calls for each male call. All cranes 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 cranes and can serve to thwart aggression, relieve tension, and strengthen the pair bond. Red-crowned Cranes seem to dance more than other species of cranes.

Nests are built on wet ground or in shallow water. Females usually lay two eggs and incubation (by both sexes) lasts 29-34 days. The male takes the primary role in defending the nest against possible danger. Chicks fledge (first flight) at about 95 days.


Loud, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o. With multiple variations.


All cranes are omnivorous. Red-crowned Cranes are generalist feeders, eating a wide variety of insects, aquatic invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and rodents, as well as reeds, grasses, heath berries, corn and waste grain. In Hokkaido, they feed on human-provided corn, cereal grains and fish.


The Red-crowned Crane is seriously threatened by loss of habitat throughout its range. Human development, especially agricultural expansion, reed harvesting, river channelization, deforestation, and road building, is destroying many of the historic breeding wetlands. Additional threats include fires that destroy nests, harassment by people, and poisoning from pesticide-treated grain. Because of their size and weight, Red-crowned Cranes do not fly as fast as other cranes, and appear more prone to deadly collisions with utility lines. To learn more about the Tancho Protection Group’s efforts to address these threats, visit their website (in Japanese):

ICF in Action

From its beginning in the early 1970s, ICF has been involved in the conservation of the endangered Red-crowned Crane. An estimated 2,500 Red-crowned Cranes remain in the wild. The major threat to the species includes critical shortages of habitat due to land use changes, wetland and grassland conversion, urban expansion and land development, pollution and environmental contaminants, oil development, and water shortages on the mainland breeding grounds.

In 1973, ICF’s co-founder, George Archibald and Japanese colleagues, Dr. Hiroyuki Masatomi and Tamake Kitagawa, conducted the first spring aerial surveys of cranes in Hokkaido, Japan, and proved that the majority of cranes were nesting in Japan and not in Siberia as was widely postulated. Greater efforts were then made to protect the wetlands used by cranes in Hokkaido.

During winters of the mid-1970s, ICF worked with Korean colleagues on Red-crowned Cranes that spent the winter in and near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). To their surprise, several hundred cranes were located.

In the early 1990s, ICF encouraged Russian conservationist Dr. Valentin Illyashenko in his efforts to protect the wetlands used by nesting Red-crowned Cranes near Lake Khanka in southeastern Siberia, work that resulted in the protection of those wetlands as a special nature reserve. In 1992, ICF helped organize a meeting between Chinese and Russian officials responsible for the administration of nature reserves on respective sides of Lake Khanka. These meetings resulted in an international agreement for future cooperation of the conservation of Lake Khanka and its cranes.

In 1991, ICF assisted Dr. Ilyashenko with a similar meeting held at Daurski Nature Reserve in Russia in a region where the borders of China, Mongolia, and Russia meet. An international agreement was signed for international cooperation to conserve a region that supports the most western extension of the breeding range of the Red-crowned Cranes. In 2003, ICF received major support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) of the United Nations Environment Program to help conserve wetlands vital to the critically endangered Siberian Crane. Several of those wetlands in northeast China (Zhalong Nature Reserve included) are vital resting areas for Siberian Cranes during spring and autumn migrations. These same wetlands are also the major nesting areas for Red-crowned Cranes in China. This project is working to ensure water allocations to restore crane breeding wetlands that support a great diversity of wildlife.

In the 1990s, Japanese colleague, Dr. Hito Higuchi, and his Russian colleagues, attached satellite-radio transmitters to Red-crowned Cranes on their breeding grounds near Lake Khanka and Khinganski in southeastern Siberia. The majority of these cranes migrated along the east side of North Korea and then inland to spend the winter in the Cheolwon Basin of the DMZ.

Subsequently, ICF has met with North and South Korean conservationists to foster cooperation for cranes and other wildlife on the Korean Peninsula, and to develop plans for a conservation program for Red-crowned Cranes at one site in North Korea and the endangered Black-faced Spoonbills at another site, while at the same time assisting local farming communities with development strategies compatible with wildlife conservation. The North Korean government has approved this project.

Zhalong Nature Reserve in northeast China supports one of the largest nesting populations of Red-crowned Cranes. It was established in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, ICF collaborated with EARTHWATCH, a private organization in Massachusetts, to study the avifauna and especially the cranes at Zhalong Nature Reserve. Approximately 200 volunteers over four years were involved with the research. Concurrently, funds were raised through EARTHWATCH to help Chinese colleagues develop their programs at the reserve. These activities culminated in 1987 with an International Crane Workshop convened by the Government of China and ICF, in the city of Qiqihar near Zhalong NR. With more than 200 Chinese participants, and 120 foreign delegates from 25 nations, it was a milestone event in crane conservation that promoted the conservation of habitats vital to cranes throughout China and in many other areas of the world.

Immediately following the breakup of the USSR, ICF’s close colleague, Dr. Sergei Smirenski, who had studied Red-crowned Cranes along the Amur River Basin on the Russia-China border, organized, with ICF-support, a crane, stork and wetland workshop on a large boat that carried delegates along this major river. For four days, delegates from China, Korea, Japan, Russia and the USA met, shared information, and developed conservation plans.

Since the early 1990s, ICF and colleagues in Japan have helped Dr. Sergei Smirenski, establish Russia’s first private nature reserve, Muraviovka Park, located on the lowlands of the Amur River not far from the major city, Blagoveshehensk. The Park stands as a model for sustainable land use and biodiversity conservation as it combines organic farming, summer camps for environmental education, and field conservation.

Building upon these initial efforts, ICF implemented the Three White Cranes, Two Flyways, One World education project in 2006 to link our conservation and education programs focusing on Siberian and Red-crowned Cranes in East Asia with our education programs centering on the Whooping Crane in the eastern United States. Through annual field trips to ICF, classroom visits by ICF educators, and educator exchanges in the United States, China and Russia, students along both flyways are learning about cranes and their shared responsibility in protecting our global environment. Students are further connected through a project art exchange and the Three White Cranes, Two Flyways, One World website, which includes information on the cranes and people along the two flyways and an online classroom with student activities focusing on cranes and migration.

Wetland conservation in one of the world’s most heavily populated regions is a major challenge for conservationists. ICF will continue to help our colleagues in that region address these challenges, an effort that is now facilitated by the Northeast Asian Crane Site Network, funded by the Government of Japan involving six northeast Asia countries.

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.