Hidden crane drawing on forest shrine

Red-crowned crane painting on shrine wall

The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage walk in Japan, near Osaka, is beautiful on the eye but the pilgrimage narrative dished out is incomprehensible. It’s hard to pay attention to a shrine when its role in the pilgrimage or indeed in Japan’s general history is obscure. So I almost missed the side wall of an almost hidden little shrine on our third day, back in November.

Amazement! Next to a stylised bent tree, a Red-crowned Crane elegantly props, about to peck, its stately wings partly unfurled. What an evocative sight! I’ve kept reading that this crane is almost a holy bird in Japan, but it’s not easy to find evidence of it. Here is the kind of anecdotal proof that can convince me.

Crane anticipation (muted)

Red-crowned Crane in flight

Towards the end of a week of redrafting in Amsterdam, I hunkered down under streaming light on a Sunday morning, across the road from the glass-windowed frontage of the city’s small ARTIS zoo. My pulse had quickened on the discovery that ARTIS houses a pair of Red-crowned Cranes. In spite of general qualms about zoos, I knew the opportunity to observe grus japonensis in the wild would need to await a couple of years, so I was keen to make the acquaintance of this significant species.

So my education began with a limited trawl of websites. I acquired a commercial photo from DepositPhoto to accompany this post, taking care not to buy a snowfields one, that being the standard Hokkaido vista of the Japanese Crane, as it is known. The International Crane Foundation site told me that grus japonensis stands about as tall (my chest height) as my country’s Brolga but is meatier, the heaviest crane according to ICF, a kilogram and a half heavier at 7.5 kgs. It is a stunningly beautiful crane: an almost crimson red patch atop the head, a silken black band under the bill down to the neck, pristine white feathers showing black underneath in flight. My image might not do the species justice but look! The wing sweep! The powerful body, the elegance of neck and head.

The Red-crowned Crane is in trouble. ICF offers a precise census for its global extent, 2,800 to 3,300 birds. Status? Endangered, which broadly means likely to go extinct within two decades (though that status was accorded in 1970, so conservation efforts have had some success). Roughly a thousand permanently reside at saturation point on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The rest migrate from dwindling breeding sites across wild east Asia to either an eastern China delta or Korea (including in the hot spot North-South DMZ).

As I worked, waiting for our zoo visit in the afternoon, how I longed to check what Peter Matthiessen wrote about these culturally resonant birds in Birds of Heaven, but, regrettably, there is no ebook version to carry when travelling. Still, this would be a special day.