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Japan's beloved red-crowned crane makes a miraculous come back

photo by Suzanne Morphet If there's one animal the Japanese love—other than cuddly dogs—it's the Red-crowned crane.
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photo by Suzanne Morphet

If there's one animal the Japanese love—other than cuddly dogs—it's the Red-crowned crane. Their reverence for the bird shows up in logos on everything from sake bottles to chopsticks, and at ceremonies from weddings to baptisms. There's even a saying, that if you fold a thousand origami (paper) cranes, you'll be granted a wish.

And yet Tancho, as the Japanese call it, is lucky to be alive. Hunted almost to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it can now be found only on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. 

I was curious to see this bird, but also to understand how the Japanese could change their feelings so profoundly towards it.

"Nowadays we think 'beautiful bird,' but at a different time, it was food," explains my guide as we drive to a crane sanctuary in eastern Hokkaido, close to the city of Kushiro.

It was in the marshes near here in 1924 that some cranes, fewer than 20, were discovered. 

And when something is rare, it seems to be part of human nature that we attach more value to it. That was certainly the case with the crane. Locals jumped into action to help Tancho, feeding the surviving cranes corn and fish to get them through the tough winter months every year beginning in 1935.

In 1952, the government designated the bird a Natural Monument. And in the first survey of cranes that same year, 33 were counted. It was the beginning of a miraculous turn-around.

In 1958, the Japanese Crane Reserve opened in Kushiro with the goal of not just protecting cranes, but propagating the endangered species. After 10 years of trial and error, they finally succeeded in artificially hatching chicks in 1970.

At the beginning of this century, the birds numbered more than 1,000 and now the population of cranes is thought to be around 1,300.

Before leaving for Japan, I read as much as I could about the cranes. A bird-watching friend recommended The Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen (author of The Snow Leopard), beautifully illustrated by B.C. naturalist and painter Robert Bateman.

I learned that cranes mate for life and perform elaborate mating rituals, including dancing and singing. One writer compared them to ballerinas, with their long, slender legs and graceful movements. When I learn I'll be in Hokkaido during their courtship season in late winter, I'm even more excited.

I knew there would be more than a little bit of luck involved in catching a mating display, but even before packing my suitcase, I could already picture it. Snow would be falling, the sun would be setting and a pair of cranes would begin their duet by spreading their wings, pointing their beaks skyward and declaring their love for each other in turn.

Don't think I'm anthropomorphizing. I've seen the photos; these birds are the epitome of elegance and romantic affection.

As we approach the Tsurui ito Tancho Sanctuary, it's a bright, sunny day and it hasn't snowed in weeks. But immediately we see cranes, dozens of them, standing in a farm field, where every day between October and March they're fed corn. To the north there's a river where they roost at night and as we watch, a few more fly in for the feeding.

Suddenly, I'm reminded of the cows on the farm where I grew up. Every day they would wait for my father to shout "cowboss" when it was time for them to come in from the field to be fed corn silage.

There's no denying the cranes are far more beautiful than cows with their bright red crowns, black tail feathers and snow-white bodies. But like the cows, these birds seem tame and only interested in eating. They stand around looking bored and before long I feel the same way.

That's not all. There's too many of them. And we can get too close. We can almost reach through the fence and touch them. Even though the birds are free to come and go as they please, this feels like a zoo.

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photo by Suzanne Morphet

We hang around, waiting and watching until a man with a pail appears and starts scattering handfuls of corn over the frozen ground. The birds don't rush at the food. Instead, they peck at the kernels in the civilized way of someone who's well fed and knows where their next meal is coming from.

We leave and drive to another feeding station across town, but the scene is similar. A lot of birds, but not a lot of interaction; certainly no dancing, and after a few minutes we've seen enough.

I'm disappointed, but I know that says more about me than it does about the cranes. Just as the Japanese went from hunting them to loving them, I've gone from being excited to being bored, and all in the space of a couple hours. What's with that?

I'm pondering all this as we head to our hotel in a town some distance away. We're driving through pretty countryside with rolling hills and open fields. It's that magical golden hour just before the sun sets. Suddenly, I see a dark shape moving across a snow-covered field. It's a fox, and he's on the hunt for rodents hiding under the snow.

Our driver pulls over and we open the windows to get a better view. Even though the fox is at least 100 metres away, we're mesmerized. Backlit by the setting sun and framed by a stand of mature trees, the setting is picture perfect. We watch as the fox pauses, cocks his ears, then pounces head first into the snow, just like in those National Geographic videos.

He comes up empty-mouthed and keeps walking.

And now I realize, this is how I like my wildlife: truly wild, self-sufficient and strong.

Dear cranes, I wish you well, and I hope that soon you won't be so dependent on people.

I hope you can spend all your days in the marshes, where you belong. Then, you can dance like nobody's watching. Prying eyes like mine won't be able to easily find you. Sure, a few determined bird watchers will seek you out, but the rest of us will just have to be content looking at their pictures. And for your sake, I won't mind.

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