Ultimate Bird Facts of the Cranes of the Western Palearctic

On this page I am providing ultimate bird facts on the Cranes of the Western Palearctic. Also, I am giving an insight in the crane species as they are distributed across the Old World of Europe, Africa and Asia. The Common Crane is the species distributed across northern, northeast and eastern Europe.

The Common Features of Cranes

Basically, cranes are vefry large birds with long legs and long neck. Their bill is straight and of medium size, formed like a dagger and longer than the head. Cranes have large feet with long toes. The toes are unwebbed. When watching cranes on the ground, it may seem as if they don’t have a tail. In fact, their tail is rather short and hidden beneath the wings.

In flight cranes are experts in using thermals for soaring flight, they are exellent gliders. During flight cranes extend their necks like storks and also outstretch their legs. Their flight formation is v-like in long-distance flights during migration and with large groups flying to the feeding grounds or sleeping areas.

Bird facts on Common Cranes in the Western Palearctic
Common Cranes on harvested maize fields in Germany near Gross Mohrdorf on the Darss-Zingst-Bodden-Line

Taxonomy of Cranes in the Western Palearctic

As already mentioned earlier only some species of cranes are distributed across the Western Palearctic and on its edges in Africa and Asia. Of those, the Common Crane is the very species we can watch and observe in Europe. The Crane species of the Western Palearctic are as follows:

Orderr Gruiformes
Family: Cranes – Gruidae

  • Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)
  • Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo)
  • Common Crane (Grus grus)
  • Sarus Crane (Grus antigone)
common cranes and greater white-fronted geese on harvested field
Common Cranes and Greater White-fronted Geese on a harvested field in northern Germany

Observing and watching the Common Crane

The best chances to watch Common Cranes without disturbing their breeding business is during migration on the staging ranges in northern Germany and during winter in the wintering ranges. An in-depth article on observing and capturing Common Cranes in Europe is coming up soon.

common crane in flight near gross mohrdorf in germany
Common Crane in flight – captured on the Bodden area near Gross Mohrdorf in Germany

Abundance and Breeding Ranges of the Common Crane

The Common Crane is the most distributed Crane of the World. Its distribution and migration covers most parts of north, western and Central Europe, eastern Europe, Turkey, and northern Africa. Wintering ranges also exist in southern and eastern Asia.

The European breeding ranges centre on the Baltic Sea, with breeding ranges located in Norway, Sweden, Finland, the three Baltic countries, Poland, northen Hungary and northern Germany. Two-thirds of the entire population breed in this area alone. Common Cranes can be found further east to Russia, south of the Moscow area and even more eastwards to Kazakhstan. Smaller populations breed in the north of Ukraine, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, eastern France and the southeast of England.

The European population has widly recoverd. From a low point in 1985 with about 45,000 individuals, the species revovered to about 300,000 individuals in 2012. By 2016, the entire European breeding population is estimated at about 140,000 to 150,000 breeding pairs. This is a real success story for Crane conservation.

cranes resting on harvested field in northern germany
Cranes on a harvested field in northern Germany near Gross Mohrdorf

Migration and Movements of the Common Crane

The Common Crane returns from the winter ranges betrween end of February and early March. On their way the Common Cranse stop on resting places in Central Europe. Central European breeding populations arrive until mid-March while the north European breeders move through Central Europe even in April.

Autumn migration begins from mid-July to mid-August and the first groups of Common Cranes arrive at their staging areas. These birds are non-breeders or “over-summering” birds. Later, the breeders with their off-spring follow. Large staging areas of the Common Crane in Germany are the Darss-Zingst-Bodden-Rügen line and the Diepholzer Moorniederung (moorland / fenland) in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), Duvenstedter Brook (Hamburg) where thousands of cranes gather befor starting their flight to the wintering ranges.

There are several flyways of which the western flyway is by far the largest and most important. The western flyway leads through northern Germany, through France, Spain/Portugal to northern Africa. Other flyways are Baltics-eastern-European flyway and the Black-Sea-flyway. For more in-depth information on crane migration and wintering please check out my post: “Common Crane Migration and most important Wintering Ranges“.

common cranes in flight in autumn
Common Crane in flight

World Crane Taxonomy

Cranes are distributed across the Old World, meaning we can watch and observe cranes in Europe, Afria and Asia. In all, there are 15 crane species existing, of which the Common Crane is the most widely distributed species. The crane taxonomy is as follows:

Order: Cranes – Gruiformes
Family: Cranes
Subfamily: Crowned Cranes – Balearicinae
Genus: Crowned Crane

  • Black Crowned Crane – Schwarzhals-Kronenkranich – Grue couronnée (Balearica pavonina)
  • Grey Crowned Craned – Grauhals-Kronenkranich – Grue royale (Balearica regulorum)

Genus: Anthropoides

  • Demoiselle Crane – Jungfernkranich Grue dimoiselle (Anthropoides virgo – scientific Grus virgo)
  • Blue Crane – Paradieskranich – Grue de paradis (Anthropoides paradisea – scientific Grus paradisea)

Genus: Grus

  • Siberian Crane – Nonnenkranich / Schneekranich – Grue de Sibérie (Grus leucogeranus)
  • Sandhill Crane – Kanadakranich – Grue du Canada (Grus canadensis)
  • White-naped Crane – Weissnackenkranich – Grue à cou blanc (Grus vipio)
  • Brolga – Brolgakranich – Grue brolga (Grus rubicunda)
  • Sarus Crane – Saruskranich – Grue antigone (Grus antigone)
  • Black-necked Crane – Schwarzhalskranich – Grue à cou noir (Grus nigricollis)
  • Red-crowned Crane – Mandschurenkranich – Gruedu Japon (Grus japonensis)
  • Common Crane – Grauer Cranich – Grue cendrée (Grus grus L.)
  • Hooded Crane – Mönchskranich – Grue moine (Grus monachus)
  • Whooping Crane – Schreikranich – Grue blanche (Grus americana)
  • Watted Crane – Klunkerkranich – Grue caronculée (Grus carunculata)
  • Demoiselle Crane – Jungfernkranich – Grue dimoiselle (Grus virgo)
  • Blue Crane – Paradieskranich – Grue de paradis (Grus paradisea)
common cranes resting in northern germany on harvested field
Group of Common Cranes resting on a harvested field in northern Germany

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More information on the Common Crane and their resting places in northern Germany can be found here: https://www.nabu.de/tiere-und-pflanzen/voegel/artenschutz/kranich/kranichzug-aktuell.html

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