What is a Siberian Crane?
The Siberian crane, also known as the snow crane or Siberian white crane, is a bird species that has two distinct breeding grounds in Yakutia (in the east) and West Siberia (in the west) of the Arctic tundra region of Russia. Immature populations or non-breeding birds, spend the summers in Dauria, which is located on the border between China, Mongolia, and Russia. Small numbers of Siberian cranes have been recorded during the summer season in the central region of Mongolia. This bird has the longest migration route of any crane species and depends on a number of wetlands as resting and feeding grounds along the way. The West Siberia subpopulation migrates to Iran for the winters while the Yakutia subpopulation makes its way to China, where the vast majority (around 95%) of these eastern cranes can be found in the Poyang Lake basin.
This bird is all white in color, with the exception of black feathers, which can be seen under its wings mid-flight. The area around its face has no feathers and the skin is a dark reddish color. The Siberian crane stands on long, thin legs, which allow it to navigate through wetlands, and has a long, thin beak, which allows it to eat wetland grasses and occasionally catch fish and earthworms. It grows to approximately 55 inches in height with an 83 to 91-inch wingspan. On average, this species weighs between 11 and 19 pounds.
The Siberian crane could once be found over a large range that stretched from the Ural mountains to the Kolyma region in far eastern Russia. Today, the population has decreased so significantly that it can only be found in 2 completely separated regions. The winter distribution of this species has also decreased over the years. For example, in 1974, researchers identified 75 Siberian cranes wintering in Bharatpur, India. By 1992, that number had decreased to 2 and became 0 in 2002. Historical evidence suggests that the western population once spent its winters as far away as the Nile river, although the Siberian crane can no longer be found there either.
Its current population size is between 3,750 and 4,000, which reflects a significant decrease over the last 3 generations. Of these individuals living today, around 99% belong to the Yakutia subpopulation of eastern Russia. This species has been listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2000. Researchers believe that its population will continue to decline over the next 3 generations of the Siberian crane lifespan due to a number of threats. It is protected by several agreements, including: the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Convention Measures for the Siberian Crane (part of the Bonn Convention), the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, and CITES.
One of the primary reasons for the critically endangered status of this species is the Three Gorges Dam development. Other infrastructure plans that negatively affect the waterways used by these birds include a number of dams along the Yangtze river and at the opening of the Poyang lake in China, which is the principal wintering ground.
Habitat destruction has been the cause of most of the population loss suffered by the Siberian crane. As waterways are diverted for agricultural, urbanization, and oil exploration purposes, this species is left with inadequate habitat for its survival and forced to find a source of food in other wetland areas. Other threats facing the Siberian crane are global climate change and polluted waterways.
Global climate change has caused widespread in the winters of the following years: 2003 and 2004, 2006 and 2007, and 2010 and 2011. The lack of rainfall caused the water level of the Poyang lake to reduce dramatically and left many Siberian cranes searching for food in waterways further upland. As temperatures increase in some areas, the permafrost will melt and result in higher water levels. As the water level rises, it will cover islands, sandbars, and shorelines used by this bird for breeding and nesting. Agricultural endeavors also contribute to habitat destruction as pesticides and other chemicals run off into important waterways.
Siberian Cranes in the Wild
As previously mentioned, the wild Siberian crane population numbers between approximately 3,750 and 4,000, which is up from the 2006 population size of 2,700. Along its migratory route, the Siberian crane relies on a number of wetlands and waterways, including the: Indigirka, Yana, and Kolyma rivers of Yakutia, Russia; the Aldan river in China; and wetlands in the Momoge National Nature Reserve. This species has also been sighted at the Huanzidong Reservoir in the Shenyang region and the Wolong lake. Additionally, a lone Siberian crane was sighted in Taiwan in December of 2014.
In Central Asia, the Siberian crane breeds and nests in the Kunovat river area in western Siberia. During the winter, this subpopulation once traveled as far away as the Keoladeo National Park in India, although no sightings have been reported since the 2001 and 2002 winter season. These birds are still found throughout Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
The western subpopulation of the Siberian crane is believed to have only 1 surviving specimen. Historically, this subpopulation had its breeding grounds along the Alymka and Konda river basins in western Siberia. The most important stopping point along its migratory route is the Volga river delta of Azerbaijan. Today, only 1 Siberian crane has been sighted in the Fereydoon Kenar area of Iran in the winter of 2006 and 2007.
Siberian Cranes in Captivity
Just 4 decades ago, less than 10 Siberian cranes were being held in captivity. Today, around 393 Siberian cranes (177 females, 166 males, and 52 unidentified) can be found in captivity in zoological parks, nature reserves, and research centers across the globe. This increase has been due to a captive breeding program pioneered by the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin in the US. This organization achieved the first successful captive breeding program by artificially inseminating female Siberian cranes, giving the eggs to other crane species for hatching, and creating artificially longer daylight hours like those found in the Arctic summer season. Siberian cranes can be found in captivity at the following locations: the Oka Nature Reserve in Russia, the Cracid Breeding and Conservation Center in Belgium, and the International Crane Foundation in the US.