Brief fact sheet on the Crane (Grus grus)


<p> </p><p> </p><p> </p><p>                Distribution map of cranes (Grus grus) in Europe</p><p> </p><p> </p><p> </p>

To enlarge the map please click on the image.

© EuroNatur

Originally the crane had its breeding grounds in large parts of Europe. The wide-spread draining of wetlands has however destroyed the greater part of the cranes' habitats. In addition hunting and the collecting of its eggs have contributed to the decimation of the population.

Today the breeding grounds of the European crane are mainly in Scandinavia, in the Baltic and in the North of Russia. But with improved protective measures these elegant great birds have increasingly been breeding in North and Eastern Germany and are spreading even further to the South.

Notes on the map
Data source: German Crane Protection Association (Kranichschutz Deutschland), Kosmos-Vogelführer (Guide to European birds) and EuroNatur's own surveys.

The boundaries marked here only indicate the core distribution areas as far as at present known. Lone individuals and smaller populations may be found outside these areas.

Photo gallery

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Wetlands with shallow open waters such as swamp forests and carrs (waterlogged wooded terrain) or the silted up areas of shallow lakes are vital for the survival of cranes. Water of at least 30 cm depth offers them a secure place to roost at night and sufficient protection for their nests. They wander widely in surrounding meadows and fields foraging for food.

Physical Features

The crane is Europe's largest bird. It stands 110 to 130 centimetres tall and has a wing span of 220 to 245 centimetres. The characteristic markings are pale grey plumage, black and white head and neck markings and the bare, red patch of skin on its head. In flight the crane stretches out neck and legs. This makes it easy to distinguish it from the grey heron which folds its head into an S shape in flight. In contrast to the gliding flight of storks cranes show a steady flapping of the wings, in slow, powerful strokes. When migrating they form larger groups in V- or 7- formations, changing places to take the lead. This way of flying helps them to save energy. Sometimes great flocks of cranes appear to be in long lines or rows stretching over many hundreds of metres.

One very important feature is the crane's voice. In practically all languages the name crane is derived from the loud rattling “karoo-karoo”calls which announce the arrival of the cranes from a great distance.


Depending on the geographical region and weather cranes return to their breeding sites from the beginning of February already. Birds of the previous year reoccupy their “patch” and defend it against other cranes. A characteristic element in the mating season that follows is the so-called dance of the cranes. The pairs circles around each other with their wings imposingly outstretched, leaping up in the air and letting loose their striking bugle-like calls. Cranes also “dance” in any situation of excitement but it is during the mating season that the dance can most often be observed. After mating the female lays, as a rule, two eggs. To protect themselves from their natural enemies the cranes makes their nests in places surrounded by water such as on platforms of roots in water-logged woods or carrs. The parent birds take it in turns to sit on the eggs. After about 28 days the young hatch out. Cranes are nidigufous, i.e. they leave their nest early. In fact after only a few days the chicks set off with their parents to forage for food. They begin to fly at around ten weeks of age. The crane family stays together on the migration to their wintering quarters. In this way the young birds benefit from the experience of their parents: flying along the route their parents use they learn also where there are secure resting places and wintering areas.


The range of the cranes' diet is wide and varied. At breeding time they feed mainly on larger insects, worms, snails and smaller vertebrates such as frogs and reptiles. While the insects and molluscs are caught with sudden, well-aimed pecks, the vertebrates are spitted on the cranes' long beaks. On their migration to their wintering sites the cranes' menu is enriched with crops they find. The birds land in huge numbers on the harvested fields and search the area carefully for grains or potatoes left lying. In the winter quarters in Southern Spain they mainly live on the acorns of the cork and holm oaks.

Endangerment and conservation status

Many wetlands in Europe have been destroyed through drainage. This has meant that in some countries the crane population has suffered a sharp decline or entirely disappeared. With the aid of intensive protection measures it has proved possible to make the migration route over France to Spain significantly safer. The result is that the breeding populations in North and Central Europe have begun to recover in the last few years. The situation along the Adriatic Flyway and the Eastern route looks very different: here the loss of habitat is still the greatest threat to cranes. A further danger is bird hunting: excessive poaching means that cranes are not even safe in protected areas so the exhausted creatures fly on instead of taking much needed rest before and after crossing the Mediterranean. 

In the EU Birds Directive (79/409 EEC) the European Crane is listed in Annex 1. This is where the especially endangered species in need of protection are to be found. The member states are under obligation “to classify in particular the most suitable territories in number and size as special protection areas for conservation of these species”.

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