Craning for a look at a natural monument

by Lucille Craft

TSURUI VILLAGE, Hokkaido — The meandering local bus takes over an hour to reach this quiet hamlet of dairy farms in southeastern Hokkaido. For out-of-town passengers, the approach to Tsurui comes as something of a shock. Those black-and-white creatures stepping delicately across the pasture most definitely ain’t cows.

Welcome to crane country.

Pausing occasionally to daintily fluff its snow-white wings, the Japanese crane is a walking piece of art, one of the great wildlife wonders of Japan. For many observers, the fabulous bird conjures up images of a ballet dancer. Author Dorothy Britton described it as “a snow ballerina dressed in pure white, with a black bustle and cap of bright vermilion on a sleek head regally held high.”

The Tsurui-Itoh Crane Sanctuary, established on a 13-hectare plot owned by dedicated crane caretaker Yoshitaka Itoh, is one of the few havens left for the crane. On a recent frosty afternoon, camera buffs jostled at the sanctuary’s fence, which kept them a good 50 meters away from the few dozen ambling, dancing and trumpeting birds.

Unlike other large, rare birds in Japan, such as the Steller’s sea eagle and Blakiston’s fish owl, the cranes have become relatively tame, permitting humans to gaze from a respectful distance. They quickly take to the air, though, at the approach even of a familiar caretaker bearing food.

Also known as the red-crowned crane, or tancho (Grus japonensis), the Japanese crane is the most striking of the three crane species regularly found in Japan. Weighing as much as 15 kg and reaching nearly 140 cm in height, the bird is pure white except for its signature crimson forehead and crown (actually a patch of bare skin), and black accents at its cheeks, throat and inner wing feathers. Its long, coiled windpipe enables it to trumpet so loudly it can be heard kilometers away. The Japanese phrase “tsuru no hitokoe (voice of the crane),” in fact, denotes an authoritative statement.

“Cranes are more than just pretty birds. They can be aggressive,” says the Tsurui-Itoh chief ranger Osamu Harada. The male offspring of an aggressive pair, Harada adds with a grin, “will often put on airs and act tough around the rest of the flock.”

Cranes pair for life (actually, research has shown that cranes “date” a series of partners until an offspring is produced) and their reputation for fidelity has made them a favorite motif on wedding kimonos. Crane figures and ideograms grace Asian shrines and temples, sake bottles and jets.

Still, the bird’s enduring popularity belies its precarious situation in real life. There are roughly 2,000 tancho left on Earth, divided between a migratory population on the Asian mainland and a mostly sedentary group squeezed into this corner of Hokkaido.

Tancho once ranged all across Hokkaido and south into Honshu, but the drastic decline in Japan’s wetlands has confined most of the country’s tancho to areas near their breeding sites in southeastern Hokkaido.

Concerted efforts by bird protection societies in Japan and conservationists abroad helped rescue the tancho from extinction. Their numbers have gone from about 27 birds in 1952 to the current population of about 700. But the growth in crane numbers is sadly both a blessing and a curse for people like ranger Harada.

“Too many cranes are competing for too little space,” he says, “so crop damage is on the rise. And our feeding areas are overcrowded, heightening the risk of communicable disease.” The Tsurui-Itoh sanctuary now packs in as many as 200 birds per feeding, twice the number considered safe.

“Tsurui” literally means “where the cranes are,” but many disgruntled farmers would just as soon their village mascot left town. “Just how many more cranes do you mean to raise?” they angrily ask Harada.

Clearly, a dispersion of the flocks across Hokkaido is desperately called for, but this is easier said than done. A candidate area on the Okhotsk seaside in Nemuro has so far resisted pleas to set up a sanctuary, Harada says, because local officials don’t want the responsibility of caring for a natural monument — and are wary about incurring the wrath of farmers, should the cranes start nibbling at corn grown for livestock feed.

“Japan doesn’t believe in doing things by trial and error,” he says wistfully. The search for new sanctuaries could take years.

Ironically, despite the crane’s hallowed place in Japanese culture and its enormous appeal as a tourist attraction in Hokkaido, the Tsurui-Itoh sanctuary is constantly struggling to meet even its modest 3.6 million yen budget, much of which goes to pay for tons of feed corn.