Dawn is breaking on the Setsuri river in Hokkaido, northern Japan. As the sun starts to climb, vapour rises off the water encrusting the trees in glittering white crystal. I watch from a bridge as the silhouettes of some of the rarest and most revered creatures on Earth emerge from the mist: the red-crowned or Japanese crane, Grus japonensis.
These birds stand five feet tall on long, slender legs, with feathers of snow white, save for the black flashes on their wings and the patch of red skin on their crown, which gives them the local name tancho, meaning “red peak”. They choose to roost in this river at night because the water protects them from predators, and because it’s that bit warmer than the biting winter air.
Japanese cranes can live for 40 years or more and, like swans, they pair off for life. At dawn, as the pale sun starts to warm the land, the pairs stretch, preen and greet each other, their bugle calls echoing down the river valley. Then, their morning routine complete, they start to run, lifting themselves from the water with slow, almost hypnotic beats, on wings eight feet wide. When they have reached sufficient height, they hold firm in a long glide, just their white wingtips ruffling in the breeze.
The first known sightings of red-crowned cranes in Japanese art date back to the fifth century. For over 1,500 years, they have been revered as symbols of fidelity, longevity, happiness and good fortune. They’ve been written into myths and folklore, painted and sculpted, folded and woven, featured on bank notes and the tail fins of Japanese aeroplanes. Today they are classified as a “Special Natural Monument”, a national icon.
Despite this legendary status, Japan’s red-crowned cranes suffered heavily at the beginning of the last century from habitat loss and hunting: their feathers were prized as hat adornments. The Setsuri population fell from thousands to fewer than three dozen individuals. Since then, through efforts to conserve their breeding grounds in the Kushiro wetlands and a winter-feeding programme, the population has steadily grown, to about 1,200.
But over the years these birds have become increasingly sedentary, cosseted into abandoning any form of migration. They are now isolated from the dwindling populations of around 1,500 other red-crowned cranes that live in south-eastern Russia, north-east China and Mongolia, and which still migrate to their winter grounds in China and the uneasy borderlands between North and South Korea. All the groups remain highly vulnerable to ever-increasing human pressure and the loss of habitat.
After leaving their winter roost site on the Setsuri river, the Japanese red-crowned cranes fly the short distance to special sanctuaries to feed. There, on the open snowfields, especially in the month of February, they perform a remarkable ritual that draws visitors from around the world.
With wings slightly raised and heads held high, a pair of red-crowned cranes begin to march, their broad, three-toed feet puncturing the snow as they trumpet loudly and steam rises from their beaks. The male calls first, followed closely by the female—several notes in quick succession, strengthening their bond. But this vocal parade is just the prelude.
Now the pair begin to dance, bowing heads, flapping wings, leaping up and down and spinning around, sometimes picking up sticks and leaves and tossing them in the air. Their momentum triggers other couples to do the same, then the juveniles join in, until the whole flock is in motion—mesmerising flashes of red, black and white, flickering across the snowfields. It’s a sight worth going a long way to see.