The national bird of South Africa, the Blue Crane, is endemic to southern Africa with most of its range falling in South Africa. It is the world’s most range-restricted crane. Strong populations are found in the Overberg region in the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape and western KwaZulu-Natal, and in southern parts of Mpumalanga.
How to recognise a Blue Crane
Blue Cranes stand about 110–120 cm in in height, and weigh about 4.5–5.1 kg. Their wingspan is 180–210 cm. The plumage colour is pale grey, lightest on head and darkest on the tertial plumes. They can be distinguished from grey-coloured herons (e.g. the Grey Heron and Black-headed Heron) by their long tertial plumes, which almost trail on the ground, the differently shaped head and bill; and in flight by the outstretched neck. Juveniles lack tertial plumes, but otherwise resemble the adults. Chicks are covered in greyish down.
They fly at as much as 60–70 km/hr, sometimes in a V-formation, and walk on the ground while foraging. When threatened or disturbed, they may adopt a stiff, strutting walk while shaking their head and flicking the bill from side-to-side.
They communicate by making noisy calls, especially in flocks. Both sexes utter loud, guttural bugle-like notes, ‘krraaarrr’. Pairs perform a duet, dancing and jostling. Pairs and potential pairs engage in courtship dancing in which they bow to each other, leap into the air, take short runs and toss up bits of grass and small mammals into the air. Pairs then take break away from the flocks and take up occupation of breeding sites. Small young ones make a soft peeping sound until more than a year old. They start making the adult bugle sound from 10 to 11 months, but are only capable of the full bugle by about 16 months.
Blue Cranes are endemic to southern Africa, mainly the southern and eastern parts of South Africa from the southern and eastern Mpumalanga Highveld through the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Flocks also occur in the Western Cape, especially in the Overberg area, and seasonally as far north as Nieuwoudtville. A small breeding population of approximately 60 individuals exists in northern Namibia, in and around the Etosha pan, and vagrants reach Botswana. There have been some unconfirmed records of sightings in Zimbabwe. They have been decreasing in numbers in the Eastern Cape and are no longer breeding at some former breeding sites in the province. However, they have increased their range in the Western Cape during the last few decades, inhabiting mainly agricultural areas. They frequent open country, such as Highveld grassland, Karoo, pastures and agricultural land.
The Blue Crane is a bird of open grasslands and other upland habitats. They are mostly found in natural vegetation in the eastern parts of their distribution (e.g. Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal), but also utilises cultivated pastures and crop lands. Where shallow wetlands are available, Blue Cranes will roost and feed in them. They are also able to utilise grazed and burnt grassland. In more arid areas, such as the Karoo and Namibia, they are found in dwarf shrubland and dry grassland, but only where rainfall averages more than 300 mm per year. In the Western Cape, they are mostly confined to cereal crop fields and planted pastures.