Wattled crane

Wattled crane

Cranes are a family of birds comprising 15 species that live across five continents (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia). Wattled cranes are named for the flaps of skin, or “wattles,” that dangle from their chins. These wattles indicate a crane’s mood, shrinking when they are nervous and elongating when they are excited.

Bugeranus carunculatus


Eastern Africa, Southern Africa

Grasslands, Wetlands

Look for the wattled cranes in the Lower Zoo next door to the Aldabra tortoise greenhouse.

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Wattled cranes have much in common with other species of cranes, including an omnivorous diet, a monogamous breeding strategy, an elaborate courtship display, and congregation in flocks during the non-breeding season.

Like other species of this iconic bird family, wattled cranes are at risk of extinction primarily due to habitat loss. However, this species is more dependent on wetland ecosystems than other African crane species, making the species more susceptible to negative impacts of changes to their environment. They also are less likely to produce a clutch of multiple eggs, and their chicks have a longer incubation and fledging period than other crane species. These factors reduce the population’s ability to recover from declines. But you can help! Reducing your carbon footprint through actions like conserving energy and shopping for sustainably sourced and/or locally produced products can help preserve wattled crane habitat. Another way to help is to avoid purchasing products made from animal parts and speaking out when you see cranes or other wildlife on social media being advertised for sale or kept as pets.

These tall birds have long legs and necks. They reach heights of five to six feet and weigh 15-20 pounds. While chicks are yellowish-brown, the feathers of adults are white on the neck and breast, light grey on the wings and back, and dark charcoal on their undersides. Their heads are mostly white with a dark grey crown and a distinct red facial patch that extends from below their eyes down the front of their wattles. Their long beaks are excellent tools for foraging in tall grass, and their long legs help keep their bodies warm and dry while resting and foraging in shallow waters.

Non-breeding adults and immature birds live in flocks of up to 50 or more birds, depending on habitat quality. These flocks serve an important function to help young cranes find mates. They are not considered migratory, but they will move around their home range in response to water availability. Bonded pairs and family groups also join flocks during non-breeding seasons. Like other crane species, wattled cranes mate for life. During the breeding season, bonded pairs will defend a territory of up to one square kilometer, typically in shallow wetlands with minimal human disturbance.

Cranes are known for their elaborate courtship dances which reinforce pair bonds, and this species is no exception. These dances involve a series of displays such as bowing, stick tossing, vocalizing, and jumping. After mating, the pair uses plant material to construct a large nest about three feet wide and almost two feet high. Most clutches are only one egg which the parents incubate for a little over a month, representing the smallest clutch size and longest incubation period of any crane species. Although chicks fledge in four to five months, young wattled cranes typically stay with their parents for a full year. Most wattled cranes do not breed successfully until they are 7 years old.

Look for the wattled cranes in the Lower Zoo next door to the Aldabra tortoise greenhouse.

The largest populations of wattled cranes live in south-central Africa, primarily on the wetlands and floodplains of the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers. This range covers parts of Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. There are also small, isolated populations in Ethiopia and South Africa.

Wattled cranes are heavily dependent on wetland environments such as swamps and floodplains. Although these wetland ecosystems are only a small portion of their home range, they are essential for breeding. Wattled cranes also utilize grassland ecosystems for foraging and congregating.

Cranes are omnivores, using their long beaks to forage for aquatic vegetation. In drier areas, they will also eat grain, seeds, insects, and small aquatic animals like snails, fish, and frogs.

Wattled cranes face a variety of threats, the most significant of which is habitat loss. Dams, water diversions, and the conversion of wetlands and grasslands for agriculture reduce the quantity of habitat available to crane populations while mining, invasive species, and widespread pesticide use negatively impact the quality of their habitat. Like other crane species, they are also exploited for the illegal international wildlife trade and adults are hunted. These are just a few factors contributing to an overall decline in wild wattled crane populations. Poverty and a lack of economic opportunities in local communities interact to exacerbate many of these threats as well.

The adult wattled cranes at Zoo Atlanta were recommended to breed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Wattled Crane Species Survival Plan® (SSP). They successfully hatched their first chick in May 2020, contributing to the genetic diversity and demographic stability of the population of wattled cranes in accredited zoos in North America.