Red-Crowned Cranes Raised at the Yancheng Reserve 

In the coming dusk, a family of three red-crowned cranes glided
across the sky, chanting their unique songs that reached straight into
the sky. Their songs were echoed on the ground by dozens of other
cranes, who stretched their necks and pointed their long beaks
upward. Lifting their black-tipped wings, they formed giant flowers
of jade.

"They long to join their friends of the wild," said Zhao Yongqiang,
28. "But they always come back after a few days." Zhao was
talking about 28 red-crowned cranes he and other workers have
raised at the Yancheng Natural Reserve in northern Jiangsu

With a lifespan of over 60 years, the red-crowned crane is a symbol
of longevity, noblity and auspiciousness in China. But in modern
days, the red-crowned cranes are hard to see in the wild, as there
are just over 2,000 of them left in the whole world, half of which
spend the
winter in Japan and the Korean Peninsula, said Professor Wang
Qishan, member of the Crane Specialist Group of the World
Conservation Union.

Among the world's 15 species of cranes, nine have been spotted in
China. But the Canadian crane and the red-necke crane are just
stray birds. The other seven species number less than 30,000 in
China, Wang said.

In history, red-crowned cranes were seen in the middle and lower
reaches of the Yangtze River. From Siberia, they went as far south
as today's Guangdong and Fujian provinces. But human
development has eroded more and more of their habitats. The
current habitats for the red-crowned crane in China is mainly
concentrated along the sea coast.

"Yancheng is the biggest wintry resort left for the red-crowned
cranes," said Wang, 70, who is also the editor-in-chief of the
academic Crane Journal in Chinese.

But what draws ornithologists and bird-lovers to the Yancheng
Reserve is not just the 1,000-plus red-crowned cranes wintering
there, the reserve itself is an attraction. It is unique among the nearly
1,000 Chinese reserves in that it has a song and a television show
based on a heroine called Xu Xiujuan, who devoted her life to the
lovely birds.

Xu came to Yancheng in 1986, from a family of crane-trainers in the
Zhalong Natural Reserve of Northeast China's Heilongjiang
Province, the summer habitat for the red-crowned cranes to breed.
She helped other staff of the reserve train the cranes so that they
could breed under human care and increase the number of the rare
cranes in the world.

Xu was a true friend of nature and wildlife. "I love cranes and I love
nature," she wrote in the dairy which was discovered after her death.
"As soon as I walk towards the wilderness, I can forget all the
unhappiness and nuances in my life."

On September 16, 1987, two little swans of the reserve flew into the
wild and did not come back until dusk. Xu went to look for them.
She heard a local farmer had caught the birds and she hurried to
cross a river on the road. Unfortunately, the river was deeper than
she had thought. A day later, her body was discovered at the river
bank. That year, Xu was just 23.

Today, a small exhibition of Xu's story is held in the Crane-Watching
Pavilion overlooking the core zone of the reserve.

Every dawn and dusk, Zhao walks past the pavilion to feed the
cranes, who stay in 15-square-metre enclosures covered with fishing
net. Half of the enclosure is shallow fresh water, which has a thin
layer of ice as this winter is extraordinarily cold. It could reach minus
six degrees centigrade at night.

"They always follow me if I let them out," said Zhao, pointing to two
yellow-feathered cranes that are little more than one year old and
over a metre tall. "That's because I was the one to call them like
their parents would do a day before they broke the egg shell. The
coming summer, I will lead them to fly."

Leading the little cranes to fly is one of the most interesting
experiences with the rare birds, said Lu Shicheng, 38, who has
reared and trained the cranes for 15 years. "We lead the little cranes
to run towards the wind. Naturally they will flap the wings and leap.
From the first few metres off the ground, they gradually learn to fly.
We must call them with the same signal they've been hearing from
the shell to let them know when and where to come back."

While teaching them to fly is fun, breeding them has not been an easy
task. The red-crowned crane matures at age two. Singing and
dancing are the rituals of their courtship. The male crane starts the
dance. If he moves her, she will join in the dance, featuring flapping
wings, leaps and steps, and ends in a passionate duet. Once the pair
become spouse, they will remain so for a whole life. Just like the
swans, the cranes will live alone sadly if their beloved dies.

To accommodate the red-crowned cranes in the warmer southern
China, Lu and his colleagues carefully prepared tranquil dormitories
with ample light. When the crane couple start picking up grasses, Lu
must provide them with enough reeds to construct the nest.

"Cranes are very picky about the nest, which seems like a pile of
grass, but we just can't imitate," Lu said. "The cranes often rip apart
a complete nest till perfection."

Throughout the one month of making the nest, the crane couple will
mate every day until they start to hatch the eggs. In the early
morning, the male crane starts to dance around the female, who will
dance in rhythm. She then spreads the wings and turns her back to
the male,
singing the inviting song of "Ko-ko."

The male crane will leap onto her back and sing with her. Once they
finish, the male crane leaps down and the couple will immediately
sing aloud, announcing to Heaven that they have completed a great

Each crane couple normally lays one to three eggs. Lu and other
workers will take away an egg so that they can lay more. The
hatching period lasts another month.

In the spring of 1991, the crane couple Lu had tamed laid the first
egg at Yancheng. Lu and his colleagues were so happy, they bought
wine and prepared dishes to celebrate.

But the cranes had nested on a low ground, the coming rainy season
would inevitably flood the nest. Lu moved the nest to a higher place.
To their great dismay, the cranes pricked open the egg and tore the
nest to pieces. "We learnt how deeply cranes hate the changes to
their nest and egg. We couldn't eat or sleep for several days. The
regret was beyond words," he said.

With this lesson, they remade the crane dormitory and the first crane
was born in the spring of 1992. A few hours after the light yellow
chick crane struggled out of the egg shell, it could stand and sing. But
three days later, the chick hid under the reed in a storm and was
crushed to death when its unknowing parents sat on the reed.

In 1994, they finally succeeded in rearing the crane. Last year, they
got nine chicks and five survived a rare blood disease. "Once we
get over 50 cranes, we can let them fly with the wild cranes freely, as
they have reached a stable group to breed by themselves," said Liu
46, vice-director of the reserve.

"I remember Xu Xiujuan as a very diligent and straight-to-the-point
girl," said Lu. In the summer of 1987, Xu followed him on a trip to
count birds in the wild. "I will do my best!" were the words that
struck Lu the most. That day, she counted over 80,000 birds. Just
two months later, Lu heard of Xu's death as he returned home from
a long survey trip of the birds. "I couldn't believe my ears until I saw
her picture among the white mourning flowers. She was so young."

Original source: China Daily
Submit by Liz  Song on 17.03.2000