The Grey Crowned Crane

Named for its crown of stiff golden feathers, the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) rules over the savannahs of Southern and Eastern Africa. They may also be found in wetter habitats such as marshes and around lakes. Although its plumage is mainly grey, it exhibits shades of white, gold, red and black. They reach around 1 metre in height and even wander around like royalty – with their entire body postured upright.

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African crowned cranes (which includes the closely related black crowned crane) are the only cranes that can grip branches, enabling them to roost up in trees. Grey crowned cranes have a spectacular breeding display. Jumping, dancing and bowing are just some of the tactics used to attract a mate. They also deploy a booming call by inflating their red gular sac (the bit of red skin beneath their chin). Once they have successfully mated and created their nest, grey crowned cranes will lay a clutch 2-5 eggs.

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A pair engaging in a courtship ritual.

Omnivorous, these birds have a varied diet. Examples include grasses, seeds, insects, frogs, snakes, worms and small fish. They have adopted an effective hunting mechanism, stamping their feet as they walk to flush out insects and other invertebrates. A similar strategy is used when they follow larger grazing herbivores such as antelopes and rhinos, except they don’t have to do any work. They simply follow these mammals and swiftly devour any small creatures turned up by the passing grazer. This is an example of commensalism. Commensalism is a form of symbiosis (a biological interaction between two organisms) in which one organisms benefits whilst the other is unaffected. In this case, the grey crowned crane benefits and the grazing mammal is unaffected.

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Sadly, these royal birds are endangered. Grey crowned cranes face a plethora of ongoing threats. Drainage of the natural wetlands in their habitat is leaving them with fewer places to nest. Overgrazing by livestock is limiting their availability of food. Pesticide pollution is interfering with the delicate ecological balance of Africa. Live capture and egg collection for commercial trade is also a detrimental threat to these cranes. However, organisations such as the International Crane Foundation are helping to conserve this species. By improving and enforcing harsher policies that strengthen the consequences of the illegal wildlife trade, they hope to reduce the atrocity of this trade. Moreover, they are encouraging methods to minimise the conflict between grey crowned cranes and traditional farmers.

One of the things I can do is to spread a wider awareness for the status of these cranes and the threats they face. As the national animal of Uganda, the grey crowned crane even appears on the country’s flag. They are unique in both appearance and behaviour and play a great ecological role. Their reign is not yet over.

 

Sources:

https://www.savingcranes.org/species-field-guide/grey-crowned-crane/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_crowned_crane

http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/grey-crowned-crane-balearica-regulorum

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Wild Turkey

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be nice to pay some appreciation to the quintessential Christmas meat – the turkey. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a fascinating, ground-dwelling bird native to North America, and carries a huge historical significance. Their name originates from Britain, whereby domesticated turkeys were being imported to Britain in ships arriving from a region in and around the country of Turkey.

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An adult male turkey displaying his magnificent plumage.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous birds that typically feed on forest floors, consuming a varied diet of nuts, seeds, insects, fruits and salamanders. They prefer hardwood forests with scattered openings such as marshes, swamps, grasslands, fields and orchards.

Prior to America’s colonisation, the Native Americans regularly hunted wild turkeys for their undoubtedly delicious meat. When Europeans arrived, they quickly domesticated the birds and wild turkeys were unsustainably hunted, causing their numbers to plummet during the 19th and 20th century, and their status became increasingly insecure. Thankfully, in the 1940s, reintroduction programmes began which established new populations in recovering forests and woodlands across North America.

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An adult male (left) and female (right) competing in a staring contest.

Male and female turkeys are dissimilar in appearance, exhibiting a range of different characteristics (this is known as sexual dimorphism). Adult males, also called toms or gobblers, are much larger than females, known as hens, and have a thick, glossy black plumage, sometimes showing areas of purple, red, copper and bronze. They also have a white-tipped tail which becomes fanned out when displaying to a potential partner. However, most noticeably, males have an intense bald, reddish head with red wattles drooping down from their throat and neck. Additionally, they flaunt a long, red fleshy flap over their beak – called a snood. In contrast, female turkeys have a duller plumage of brown and grey tones and lack many of the distinctive characteristics of the males.

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A lone female turkey.

Males can weigh up to 10kg, whereas females seldom exceed 5kg. Despite their relatively large weight, wild turkeys are agile, fast flyers and can comfortably traverse through the obstacles in their woodland habitat. Wild turkeys share their habitat with a plethora of predators including coyotes, gray wolves, cougars, bobcats, Canadian lynx, black bears and eagles – but these seemingly slow-witted birds are not completely defenceless. Adult turkeys, especially males, can be quite aggressive to potential threats; they may kick, bite or even ram in order to deter predators. Surprisingly, wild turkeys can run 40 kilometres per hour in short bursts – nearly as fast as Usain Bolt’s maximum sprinting speed.

I hope this post allowed you to learn a bit more about the turkey, and gave you a greater appreciation for their lifestyle, unique characteristics and abilities. Happy Holidays!

The Andean Condor

One of the world’s largest flying birds, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) can reach a wingspan of over 3 metres (around 10ft) and males can weigh up to 15kg! As the name suggests, these vultures are found throughout the Andes mountain range in South America where they feed on carrion. As scavengers, these birds have a vital ecological task by ensuring nutrients is recycled back into the food chain. Andean condors also have one of the longest lifespans of any bird, living up to 70 years in some cases.

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A male Andean condor with a large crest on its head.

These birds have an exceptionally unique appearance which varies between the different sexes. Their plumage is mostly black with a distinctive white collar around their neck; adult males have white patches on their wings and a dark reddish-black crest on the crown of their heads. As with nearly all vultures, their head and neck are bald which is an adaptation for hygiene, allowing the skin to be exposed to the sterilising effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes.

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A male condor in flight, displaying his bright, white wing feathers.

Their talons are long yet relatively blunt and weak, instead they are adapted to walking rather than catching prey. Instead, their main weapon is their sharply hooked bill which allows them to tear rotting meat. In order to locate their preferred carrion, they will use their fantastic sense of sight or by following other scavengers, such as turkey-vultures.

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A female Andean condor with a rather fancy white neck ruff.

The Andean condor is considered a near threatened species (their main threat is habitat loss) but their population currently seems to be stable – large populations can be found in national parks across western South America and quite a few captive breeding programs have been set up.

The Magnificent Frigatebird

The largest species of frigatebird, the magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificensis a seabird found over tropical and sub-tropical waters around the Americas. Interestingly, there are also populations on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Frigatebirds endure infrequent feeding opportunities and long hours in flight which has caused them to inherit a low breeding rate and the longest period of parental care of any bird.

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A male magnificent frigatebird attempting to woo a female.

In terms of appearance, the magnificent frigatebird has a blackish-brown plumage, extensive narrow wings and a recognisable forked tail which look like little legs when they’re soaring in the sky. However, the most prominent feature, and the feature many people associate with the frigatebird, is their intensely vivid, red gular sac. This is just an area of red, featherless skin which connects the lower mandible of the bird’s beak to its neck, and is only present in male frigatebirds. Males inflate this red sac in order to attract a mate – a clever, evolutionary advantage which looks undeniably impressive.

Females are slightly larger than males and do not posses a red gular sac, instead, they have a white breast and belly. They are coastal birds so their diet consists mainly of fish, but frigatebirds don’t usually dive for their meal, they feed on fish taken in flight from the ocean’s surface (often flying fish). These birds may also obtain a free meal by harassing other coastal birds to force them to regurgitate their food and then diving and catching the stolen meal before it hits the surface of the water – a nasty but effective tactic. Depending on their location and availability of food, the magnificent frigate bird may also feed on squid, jellyfish, and crustaceans.

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A female frigatebird looking like a kite.

A recent genetic study of different magnificent frigatebird populations found that the Galapagos population is genetically distinct from the other populations and has not exchanged any genes with their mainland counterpart for several hundred thousand of years, they are so genetically distinct that the Galapagos population could even be classified as its own species. If they were classified as a separate species, the Galapagos species would be highly vulnerable to extinction since the population of Galapagos frigatebirds stands as around 2,000 individuals. For now though, they are all classified under the same species – the magnificent, magnificent friagtebird.

The Scarlet Ibis

Today I felt like writing about a beautiful, exotic bird, and with its vivid red plumage, the scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) is definitely worthy for this description. They obtain their stunning scarlet pigment from eating crustaceans (mainly shrimp and red shellfish) but their diet also heavily consists of insects. Their distinctive long, thin bills are cleverly used like a probe, to rummage for food in mud or under plants.

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What an extraordinary scarlet plumage!

This wading bird inhabits a vast range across northern South America and many Caribbean islands. They live in flocks of 30 or more and are highly sociable birds, often they will congregate into much larger flocks with thousands of individuals creating a magical sea of radiant crimson. These flocks can be found in wetlands and other marshy habitats like rainforests and mangroves. Interestingly, they may also assemble with other South American wading birds such as spoonbills, storks, egrets, herons and ducks which give them the advantage of safety in numbers.

The scarlet ibis is a national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, along with the Cocrico (Ortalis ruficauda).  Although adults are almost entirely scarlet coloured (the tips of their wings are an inky black colour), juveniles are a mix of grey, brown and white but their plumage gradually changes as they consume more red crustaceans. Their phenomenal colouration makes them the only red shorebird in the world.

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Crimson missiles soaring over mangroves.

Thankfully, their population is listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and their numbers are plentiful in many areas. However, in certain local populations they are in decline and Brazil considers them an endangered species. Therefore, we should still show our support for this marvellous species.