China's Noble Bird Caught in Bind

Competition with human population for food and habitat puts red-crowned cranes at risk. WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

THERE it stood, about four meters (13 feet) tall, red crown high above its black-and-white body - a red-crowned crane. I had traveled more than 7,000 miles to see this sight. The reality took my breath away. From Taoist art to modern slipcovers, the red-crowned crane has symbolized longevity in China for centuries. Visit any of China's ancient cultural sites and you will surely see a statue, a tapestry, a painting, a pebble portrait imbedded in a walkway, or some other representative of the Celestian Crane, as it is also known. What's more, the same is true for modern sites. Visitors to the State Meteorological Administration in Beijing, source of national weather reports, find statues of cranes in front of the main building. They also decorate useful everyday items.

After seeing the crane on tea canisters, bath towels, a funeral sheet, even a railroad overpass, I could believe Zhou Yuansheng, deputy director of the Forestry Technology Extension Service of the Jiangsu Agricultural and Forestry Department, who says, ``The red-crowned crane is the most important animal in our country,'' adding that China's National Protection Law identifies it as such. This bird was referred to by one Chinese friend, a young office worker, as ``the noble among creatures.'' Renditions of the crane are so ubiquitous that one might expect it to be, like China's human population, abundant.

Not so: Between this traditional symbol of long life and China's burgeoning population has arisen competition for food, for space, and, so far as the cranes are concerned, for life itself.

The red-crowned crane is found only in China, Japan, and the Soviet Union. According to scientists from Jiangsu's Environmental Protection Agency, the world's largest known flock winters in China's Jiangsu Province. There, amid tall tan grasses and reeds drying in Yancheng township's autumn sun, these striking birds, with their scarlet pates, find cover when they fly south from Heilongjiang Province in autumn. They come seeking this cover and open water for their winter foraging. In shallow salt waters at the edge of the Yellow Sea and in the muddy marshes, they hunt the small fish, tiny shrimps, frogs, and crabs that make up their basic diet.

But everything the crane seeks in Yancheng is also used by human beings. The reeds and grasses are cut by nearby villagers for baskets and mats. The shrimps, crabs, frogs, and fish are food for humans as well. As a result, crane habitat is dwindling.

To learn more about the red-crowned crane's prospects, I traveled to Xin Yanggong, the small fishing and agricultural village where the headquarters of the roughly 100,000-acre Yancheng Precious Birds Natural Conservation Area is located. Established in 1983 by Jiangsu Province, this is China's first coastal nature reserve. Here, along with more than 200 other species of birds, the red-crowned crane is being studied and protected.

With obvious love for their work, ornithologists at Xin Yanggong introduced me to their beloved cranes. And what a dramatic introduction it was! Chen Lan, a young woman from the village who is employed at the preserve, opened the door of a screened runway at the edge of the marsh. One after another, out stepped four stately birds that had been transferred by train as chicks from Zhalong Nature Preserve in Heilongjiang and hand-reared in Yancheng. Only one bore the red badge of adulthood, but the clean, white bodies of all glistened in the cold winter sunlight. When the adult spread its wings in warning against anyone approaching too closely, it was a startling sight. Black markings etched the lower edges of the wings, making them resemble mountain peaks against a cloud bank. Truly a living work of art.

Out in the marsh a river flows. On our side, villagers from Xin Yanggong worked quietly, some cutting and stacking the vegetation that grows head high, others probing for succulent little crabs that hide under the surface just within reach of crane bill or crabber's stick. On the other side of the river, half-hidden by uncut grasses in the central refuge, someone spied a group of 64 cranes gleaming in the noonday sun. Liu Xiping, deputy director of the Yancheng reserve, explained that in the secondary refuge, a 328-foot-wide border of the marsh, such activities are permitted, although no one may live there. The central refuge is devoted entirely to the cranes and other waterfowl.

One important duty of the nature preserve staff is enforcement of these regulations. It was as though the cranes understood this, for they seemed oblivious to the workers beyond the narrow strip of water. Their brilliant bodies against the beige background seemed remote as they methodically foraged for food.

With crane numbers so low, the need to be creative is apparent. Along with educational programs to alert local people to the need to protect the birds, scientists use other tactics that go beyond mere protection. One involves a bit of ornithological larceny. A red-crowned crane couple (these birds mate for life) normally produces two eggs per year, but if something happens to both eggs, the female will lay again. Eggs are systematically removed from nests for incubation at preserve headquarters. Mother crane then lays two more.

How long will she put up with this? George Archibald, director of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., one of several international organizations cooperating to protect cranes, says that in captivity she may lay up to 12 eggs. According to Dr. Zhu Chengyao, director of the Department of Biology at the Jiangsu Education Institute, Chinese experience has been that in the wild she will lay six or seven. In any case, this willingness to work overtime to perpetuate the species gives scientists a valuable tool in their work.

Dr. Liu described a feeding program that researchers at the Yancheng reserve believe is causing changes in characteristics of the crane population. ``We put fish, corn, and other food in far places in the refuge,'' he said, ``but we can't guarantee that it will all be found.'' Conservationists hope that spreading supplementary food in remote regions will enable more birds to survive on smaller areas. Yancheng ornithologists are encouraged by the appearance in recent years of some family groups of four birds, two adults and two fledglings, instead of the usual groups of three.

In August 1988, a Beijing Review reported, ``According to the United Nations Crane Fund, in 1987 there were 1,080 red-crowned cranes in the world ....'' By February 1989, according to Liu, the number had grown to 1,100.

Bird and egg transfers between nature reserves within China and between countries, as well as field studies and public education, have all contributed to the continued existence of this treasured bird. Will the program be successful? Mr. Zhou is hopeful. ``Because the life of the people in the area has improved, it's not necessary for them to shoot the birds for food. Before, when they were hungry, they did. Now even those who hunted for fun know they must not, because there are so few [cranes], and the government protects them.''

It is too soon to be sure the program will succeed, but as I watched those elegant creatures high-stepping through the marsh, it was clear that this world would be a poorer place without them.

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