Friday, September 20

Crashing Crowns

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The Crested Crane has inhabited Uganda’s swamps and fields long before the coming of tribes in its territory. To the different tribes of Africa, the call of the Crowned Crane suggests its many sounds. To a Muganda the call is Ng’aali; to a Swahili M’waari; to an Acholi, O’welo; to the Zulu it is Maahem and the same sound is Muraaho to a Munyarwanda.

The marshes and flat grasslands of Uganda offer the birds everything they love in a habitat. High trees to build safe nests away from the reach of predators, but still wet enough for a reliable source of water. These birds tend not to migrate. Some cranes live far north in the arid Sahara desert. These birds migrate south for portions of the year to escape the hottest and driest months in the desert. They join their more sedentary cousins in Uganda and Kenya who live near rivers and lakes. Uganda is abundant with wet, flat marsh and grassland and the bird has become a symbol for the nation of Uganda.

Cranes are some of the tallest birds out there, standing at over a metre and measuring over 2 meters from wing tip to wing tip. Despite having wings that are wider than most people are tall, they weigh just 3.5kg. Hollowed out honeycomb-like bones keep their weight down, allowing them to take to flight.

Sir Frederick Jackson in 1893, chose the crane’s exquisite form to become the emblem of Uganda. A famous ornithologist, he surrounded himself with these graceful birds in the lawns of the government House in Entebbe. Naturalist, artist and explorer, Sir Harry Johnstone on becoming the Ugandan Deputy Commissioner in 1899, was also taken in by the cranes and painted a group of crested cranes for the Governer’s office.

There are 16 different species of Cranes in the world, four of which are found in Africa.

In Uganda, the Crowned Cranes prefer freshly-ploughed fields to grasslands and short to tall grass. Their food consists of plant and animal matter including grass and sedge seeds, millet, rice, peas and corn although they prefer seed heads of grasses and sedges. Like most omnivorous birds the Crested Crane eats a mix of leaves and seeds from a variety of plants, as well as insects, worms, and frogs. They have also been seen eating small fish, snakes, and various aquatic eggs. And, whilst they rarely dig, their rapid feeding sometimes uproots plants. This brings them into conflict with farmers as they tend to wind up on farmland, where they have been seen clumsily uprooting seedlings whilst searching for food.

However, they have an important role in maintaining the ecosystem. Since seeds are a major staple of their diet they spread the seeds in their droppings, inadvertently spreading foliage. The cranes also keep bug populations in check by eating them.

Crowned Cranes are monogamous and pair for life while they are young, breeding together each year and raising their young together. The advantage of this adaptation is not entirely understood. Though they may appear in flocks at a breeding area, they separate in pairs and nest singly controlling territories of about 1.5 kilometres square, defended by both sexes. They perform a series of courtship dances, curtsying and twirling, wings wide open and held high above their backs. Bill pointing skywards, they give out deep, booming love-calls delivered from a fully inflated throat. The Crested Crane it seems, loves to dance and does so all year-round. They have been seen dancing at any time of the year, including non-breeding periods, when young birds join in.

Different tribes and people have learnt through time that the calls of the crane are specific to the time of day. When not being regarded as pests, they seen as birds of joy and relaxation. For instance, when people clap and sing, Cranes dance by nodding their heads.

The Grey Crowned Crane lays its eggs in wetlands, forages in grasslands and roosts on tall trees. As wetlands are drained and grasslands converted for infrastructure and forests denuded, the stately bird is losing its habitat. The dilemma is exacerbated by poaching for the illegal and barbaric trade in live cranes on the international market for exotic pets and locally for bush meat.

Increasing human population and improved agricultural techniques is leading people to drain swamps to grow rice in eastern Uganda, for dairy farming and vegetable cultivation in south western Uganda.

Today, you are more likely to see Cranes perched atop a road sign, pylon, rubbish dump or airfields.

Mr Paul Mafabi, who has intensively researched the Cranes of eastern Uganda, was approached on several occasions by individuals inquiring whether he was interested in buying Crane chicks and eggs. The ban on massive reclamation of wetlands of 1986 did give some relief to wetlands and Cranes but recent impunity could drive the species to extinction.

It is also estimated that the large number of the Cranes we see today are old individuals who may not survive beyond 15-20 years. NatureUganda together with government lead agencies, is developing a species action plan to help stem this precipitous decline.

However, African Crested Cranes typically live upto 22 years, laying between 2 and 4 eggs in a clutch. The eggs are ready to hatch in about 30 days. They are then ready to breed when they reach 3 years of age, which given their long life-span is promising for researchers looking into repairing the bird’s ecosystem and getting their population back to normal. They have plenty of years to find a mate and get the species out of the endangered category.

Throughout Uganda’s lush green meadowlands there is not a natural sound more typical than the trumpeting of the Crested Cranes as they move to their feeding grounds or fly to the roosting sites in the dimming light of evening. Yet, a recent survey of Cranes found Kenya to be their stronghold. IN Kenya, they are declining at the rate of 800 birds per year due to habitat loss.

A press release entitled Crashing Crowns, in March this year, claimed that in 2017, Grey crowned cranes was fewer than 10,000. Estimates show a 50 to per cent decline over the last five decades. A new count by the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), the country’s leading research organization was set for the first nation-wide census of the Grey crowned crane. Eight teams and other individual volunteers and conservationists went out simultaneously to count cranes in different parts of Kenya between 25 February and 8 March 2019. The results are yet to be released.

The results will determine the present population of this endangered bird. Partnering with NMK is the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) one of Germany’s oldest and largest environment associations with the International Crane Foundation/ Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership (S. Africa) and volunteers.

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