Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
For centuries, cranes have evoked strong emotional responses in people. Their size, behavior, social relations, unique calls, graceful movements, and stately appearance have inspired expression through human art, artifacts, mythology, and legend in cultures around the world. This appreciation of cranes was conveyed in prehistoric cave paintings in Africa, Australia, and Europe. In the western tradition, evidence of human appreciation of cranes dates to the ancient Egyptians, whose tombs are adorned with images of Demoiselle Cranes. The ancient Greeks are known to have domesticated cranes, and according to myth the flight of cranes inspired the god Mercury to invent the Greek alphabet. Throughout the classic period, cranes provided symbolic meaning in allegories and histories. Cranes appear often in the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans, including the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Homer, Pliny, and Plutarch. The Latin word for crane, grues, is thought to have been an imitation of their call. In later Christian expressions, cranes came to signify watchfulness, steadiness, and mutual aid (Johnsgard 1983).
In the east, cranes have for millennia occupied a prominent place in mythology and religious tradition. In China, cranes have long symbolized longevity, and often appear in artworks carrying the souls of the departed to heaven after death. Similar spiritual and symbolic associations appear in many parts of Asia. In China, Korea, and Japan, the Red-crowned Crane symbolizes happiness, good luck, long life, and marital bliss, appearing regularly in paintings, tapestry, and other decorative arts. The Emperor’s throne in Beijing’s Forbidden City is flanked by statues of cranes. Cranes are featured on bridal kimonos in Japan, and one of Japan’s most popular folktales involves a crane that transforms itself into a maiden (Britton and Hayashida 1981, Scott 1990).
In the New World, cranes begin to appear in pictographs, petroglyphs, and ceramics from what is now the American Southwest after the year 900 A.D. (Frisbie 1986). Modified crane bones also first appear from middens of this era in other parts of North America. Crane clans developed among the Hopis and Zunis in the Southwest, while cranes served as totems for the Ojibwa and other tribal groups. Warriors of the Crow and Cheyenne made small whistles from the wing bones of Sandhill Cranes, and blew upon them in preparing for battle.
Crane-associated dances have been recorded in many parts of the world, including the Mediterranean, China, Siberia, and Australia. A “dance of the white cranes” is known from 500 B.C. in China. Aboriginal Australians named the Brolga after a young woman whose exquisite dancing drew attention from numerous suitors, but who rejected all proposals of marriage. Among her admirers was an evil magician who, in his disappointment, transformed her into a crane (Schoff 1991).
Cranes continue to be used in new symbolic ways around the world. Crowned Cranes are the national birds of Nigeria and Uganda, and Blue Cranes of South Africa. The coins and stamps of many countries have borne cranes. In part, perhaps, because of their beauty in flight, cranes have also been selected as the corporate logo for several commercial airlines. The emergence of the conservation movement, and in particular the near demise of the Whooping Crane, invested cranes with added symbolic value as emblems of humanity’s changing relationship with nature (Leopold 1949, McNulty 1966). Perhaps the best known, and most poignant, example of the enduring symbolic significance of cranes emerged from the ashes of World War II. A young Japanese girl who had lived through the bombing of Hiroshima, but who was fatally stricken during its impact, resolved to fold a thousand paper cranes during her effort to recover. Although she was unable to complete the task, other children took up the task. Since then, children in Japan have annually prepared paper cranes to symbolize the hope for peace (Britton and Hayashida 1981).
The human relationship with cranes extends beyond the symbolic. Cranes have occasionally been used as a source of food, although this has rarely been a widespread custom. Historically, crane hunting contributed to the regional extirpation of cranes in portions of North America, Europe, and Asia. Hunting of cranes is now illegal in most countries where they occur. In areas, however, where hunger is a persistent problem, cranes and other large birds are seen as important sources of food, and are occasionally taken (see Topic 1).
Cranes have long been popular birds in private collections and, more recently, in zoos. Records of cranes being kept in captivity by Chinese nobility date back more than two thousand years. Marco Polo described Kublai Khan’s efforts at crane “management” in the 13th century (Leopold 1933). Several of the species had bred in captivity by the late 1800s; all fifteen have now been bred under artificial conditions. In general, most breed readily in captivity if provided with space, privacy, and a balanced diet. This facility for propagation in captivity is now an important conservation tool for the highly endangered cranes, and many techniques first developed for cranes have been employed for other endangered bird species (see Captive Propagation and Reintroduction).
The relationship between cranes and people is by no means idyllic. Species that face growing pressures on their natural habitats have in some cases turned to using cultivated lands. Under most circumstances there is little conflict with farmers’ interests. In some situations, however, cranes have been intentionally poisoned or shot (see Topic 1). These and other threats are outlined in Threats.