Japan: The Tanchozuru Cranes in Kushiro, Hokkaido (Part 1)
Updated: Oct 11
The red-crowned cranes of Japan are undoubtedly among the most depicted animals in traditional Japanese painting. Any photographer who goes to Hokkaido in winter must visit them in the village of Tsurui. A striking and emotionally rich spectacle. But what are they really?
© O. Robert
Whether or not you specialize in wildlife photography, encountering the red-crowned cranes of Japan will remain one of the most significant memories of your photography career. In the face of such a spectacle, emotion comes quickly, and that ultimately is what matters most for producing an authentic photograph.
A Symbol Known to All
The red-crowned cranes, also known as Tanchozuru in Japanese, are one of the most precious symbols of Japan's fauna. This endemic species is primarily found on the island of Hokkaido. The scientific name for the species is Grus japonensis, and it is a wader from the Gruidae family, making it one of the largest birds in the world.
Its image is widely used in Japanese culture for the values it represents. It symbolizes peace, hope, longevity, and good luck. Frequently folded into paper in the art of origami, they also accompany prayers in Buddhist temples where necklaces of hundreds of paper cranes are offered by practitioners. Additionally, it is the emblem of Japan Airlines.
© O. Robert
Origins and Evolution
These birds were once more widespread across East Asia, but due to habitat loss and hunting, they have largely retreated to Hokkaido. Fossils of cranes dating back to prehistoric times have been discovered in Hokkaido, indicating an ancestral presence in the region.
According to data from Japan's Ministry of the Environment, the crane population was estimated to be over 1,000 individuals in 2018. Clearly, the population is only increasing over time. The ideal living conditions offered by sanctuaries like Tsurui for their preservation, as well as wildlife protection regulations, are likely contributing factors.
This growing population of red-crowned cranes is a delight for wildlife photographers, who flock to Kushiro each year to benefit from the best observation conditions in the region.
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The Tanchozuru are primarily located in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. They prefer wetlands, marshes, and open fields. Kushiro Shitsugen National Park is particularly famous for being a choice habitat for these birds.
Adults stand at a height of 150 cm and weigh between 6 to 11 kg depending on the individual. Their wingspan, when fully extended, exceeds 200 cm. Their lifespan is approximately 30 years. The cranes observed in Hokkaido stay on the island for their entire lives, not migrating to Russia like some other endemic bird species.
Although they are present year-round, they can only be observed and photographed in winter when humans feed them. The best time to see them extends from October 1 to March 31. During the rest of the year, spotting them requires considerable luck, as the cranes feed themselves and disperse into the wild.
© O. Robert
Lifestyle and Behavior
The red-crowned cranes of Japan are omnivorous birds. Their diet mainly consists of aquatic plants, small fish, and insects. They are especially known for their elaborate dance, which is an essential element of their reproductive behavior.
In winter, their courtship display is a perfect subject for photography. During this courtship period, males engage in dances to attract females. The females respond to the males they have chosen by performing a similar dance. Once the pairs are formed, the cranes remain together for the rest of their lives.
Around mid-March, females lay two eggs, which are then incubated alternately by the male and female for a month. Once the eggs hatch, the young cranes are subject to the harsh laws of survival. It is unfortunately common for foxes to prey on young cranes soon after their birth. Nests are generally built in wetland areas to minimize the threat from predators.
© O. Robert
The Tanchozuru are classified as "Vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The Japanese government has taken active measures for the conservation of these birds. Captive breeding programs have also been initiated and have successfully released individuals back into the wild. The wetlands where they reside are strictly regulated to minimize human impact.
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The red-crowned cranes are more than just a bird to the local population; they are a symbol of Japanese culture. Their presence in Hokkaido is the result of a long evolution and specific adaptations to this environment. Despite their vulnerable status, conservation efforts are underway to ensure their survival for future generations. Their habitat, lifestyle, and cultural significance continue to attract researchers, volunteers, and tourists from around the world.
© O. Robert
Part 1: The Tanchozuru Cranes in Kushiro, Hokkaido
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