Admirers of Japanese wildlife will be happy to hear about the confirmed arrival of a red-crowned crane chick at Lake Utonai Sanctuary. The announcement confirms the sighting of a parent crane and chick in the Yūfutsu wilderness district of Hokkaido for the first time since a recording in the Meiji area, about 130 years ago.

Red-crowned cranes (also known as the Japanese crane or Manchurian crane) are a common sight in Japanese mythology and imagery, but in reality, the birds are amongst some of the rarest breeds of crane in the world. With an estimate of only 1830 birds in the wild – 950 of which are part of the resident Japanese population – the sighting of a successful breeding pair and their offspring is music to the ears of conservationists.

Image taken by a WBSJ ranger on September 5 2020.

In recent years the breeding grounds of red-crowned cranes has gradually expanded across Hokkaido. Previously, the territory was limited to Eastern Hokkaido, but birds have been continuously sighted in the Tomakomai area since 2013, and observations of young flying birds have led the Wild Bird Society of Japan (WBSJ), to expect breeding to take place in the Yūfutsu district.

On May 26 2020, a member of the WBSJ confirmed the society’s suspicions, and recorded a family of red-crowned cranes with a healthy chick in the Lake Utonai Sanctuary.
The information was initially held back by the society, in order to curb any negative impact visiting birdwatchers may have had on the reproductive activities in the area and the development of the young chick. Once the young bird was old enough to learn to fly, the society made an announcement about the breeding success in the Yūfutsu district.

Image taken by a WBSJ ranger on September 5 2020.

Red-crowned crane sighting timeline of events

April 15 2020 – An adult bird was sighted foraging in the composting area of a farm before flying away towards Lake Utonai.

May 26 2020 – A WBSJ ranger monitored a nature observation trail along the shore of Lake Utonai. Using a telescope the ranger spotted an adult red-crowned crane. After considering that the lake may be a crane breeding ground, a thorough search of the area was undertaken and concluded with the discovery of a red-crowned crane family and chick.

June 24 2020 – A second observation survey was undertaken in the area and the family was confirmed for a second time on the wetlands of Lake Utonai. The team attempted to search for the nesting site, but it seemed that the chick had already outgrown the nest and it could not be found.

July 31 2020 – Another survey came back without any sightings. It was assumed that the chick may have already left the family group.

September 5 2020 – A family of red-crowned cranes with a single chick was once again sighted in the Lake Utonai area, this time on a farm near the wetlands. It is believed to be the same family first spotted on May 26.

With the uncovering of a breeding success story in the Yūfutsu district, the WBSJ will attempt to designate the area as a protected conservation area. To begin with a number of surveys will need to take place in order to understand the nesting habitat. Following that, discussions will go ahead with related government agencies where they will consider restrictions on access to the area and conservation activities that will need to take place in the area.

The image below shows a map of known red-crowned crane breeding territories in Hokkaido. The bird was once thought to be extinct in Japan due to overfishing of the red-crowned crane’s main food source and habitat destruction, but it was rediscovered in 1924 and was restored to numbers of about 950.
Up until the 1960’s red-crowned cranes were only known to have a breeding population in the eastern most points of the island, but after the rediscovery of the bird in the Kushiro National Park the bird gradually expanded its territory.

Image taken by a WBSJ ranger on September 5 2020.

Red-crowned cranes are known in Japanese as Tanchōzuru. According to legend the birds live for 1,000 years, and grant favors in return for sacrifice.
A famous folktale – The Crane Wife – tells of a man that marries a woman who is secretly a crane in disguise. The couple are poor, and to make money, the crane wife plucks her own feathers to weave silk, at the sacrifice of her own health. When the husband discovers his wife’s true identity he demands her to stop as she is becoming increasingly ill. The crane wife tells the man that she has been doing it for love, and that someone who will not sacrifice for someone else does not deserve to be with a crane. And with that, the crane wife flies away never to be seen again.

By - Connie Sceaphierde.