My fascination with the bird that came back to life in eastern Hokkaido

Couple of red-crowned cranes
Miyuki Kawase
The town that saved the red-crowned crane - It is almost 100 years since rehabilitation of the red-crowned crane began upon finding a population of the birds after they were considered to have become extinct. Akan, the town where I was born and raised, was the first place in Japan – the first in the world, in fact – to successfully increase the red-crowned crane population by feeding the cranes, and became known as “the town that saved the red-crowned crane”. Red-crowned cranes spend the summer raising their young in the Kushiro Wetland and the surrounding area. When it gets colder, they take their young to the sanctuaries in areas such as Akan and Tsurui Village, where they spend the winter. This cycle has kept the red-crowned crane population alive.

Tourists made me appreciate the red-crowned crane more

I didn’t really appreciate red-crowned cranes until I took part in a survey of the red-crowned crane population size for a class in middle school. I had considered red-crowned cranes to be part of the world around me, but I didn’t really notice them until I started working with them. In fact, I didn’t even know the history of our red-crowned cranes or how they live until I started that work – or rather, I hadn’t thought about it.

During course of my work, I heard many people talk about how impressed they were by the cranes, and saw them smiling or tearing up. The first time I saw someone being excited to see red-crowned cranes, it made a big impact on me. Red-crowned cranes had just been part of the scenery to me, but these people were willing to spend a lot of time and money on a trip to see them.

Akan International Crane Center

Akan International Crane Center © Miyuki Kawase

Red-crowned cranes can be tinged in all different colors

I was surprised by these people’s reactions at first, but after a while I understood. The more I learned about red-crowned crane populations, the more interested and charmed I became by them.

My feelings about red-crowned cranes were influenced by the photographers who came from far away every winter to see the cranes that were spending the winter in the sanctuary. It’s been 10 years since I first began to see them as a subject of photos. Before that, I could see that they were very beautiful and charming birds, but it was odd to me that people would wait for hours in -20°C temperatures just for the opportunity to take a picture of one.

I never thought that I would become one of them.

Morning red-crowned cranes

Morning red-crowned cranes © Miyuki Kawase

When I started looking at red-crowned cranes through the viewfinder of a camera, they looked different to me. I can’t really explain what was different, but I was compelled to press the shutter. These pure white birds were tinged in all different colors. The faint light at dawn when the sun was still behind the mountains, each second of its ascent above them, the light when it was all the way up in the sky, the colors as it set in the west, all of these shone in different, beautiful colors. I’m someone who wants it all; I snapped picture after picture trying to capture the cranes in every color.

Red-crowned crane

Red-crowned crane © Miyuki Kawase

The bond between mates

In addition to their beauty, I was drawn to the way red-crowned cranes have warm hearts that are similar to humans’. Red-crowned cranes are said to form partnerships for life. They may be forced to part when one crane becomes too badly injured or too ill to breed, but that is only because breeding is the greatest biological imperative of wild birds.

One autumn, there was a red-crowned crane that had a broken wing and could not fly. That crane had a leg tag, so we were able to look back at our survey history and learn that it was a female bird and that she had a mate. Since it would be difficult for her to breed, we would have thought that the male would have left her, but quite the opposite happened. He stayed close to her, seeming to do what he could to lend her his wings. The female roosted by a small river where she could walk instead of flying, while the male roosted a short distance away from the other cranes by a big river. Every morning, they met up in the same place. If one crane arrived before the other, it would call loudly to its mate, and the other crane would appear, seeming to say “Sorry I’m late!”.

I watched that loving couple every day until it was almost spring.

When spring began to approach, they did their courtship dance and mated. The female seemed to really want to fly – she took a run-up and valiantly moved her broken wing, trying to fly. Sadly, she couldn’t get off the ground. When spring came, the two cranes were gone.

Red-crowned cranes

Red-crowned cranes © Miyuki Kawase

Now that the red-crowned crane population has grown, it’s time to think about how we should coexist with wildlife

The bond between red-crowned crane partnerships is so strong that the red-crowned crane is used as a symbol of happy relationships in Japan. They are also considered a symbol of long life, as they live for 20 years in the wild or 40 years in sanctuaries. And with their simple coloring of white and black with the red crown that gives them their English name, some Japanese people consider them a symbol of the simple yet refined nature of Japanese culture itself.

But we’re also facing various problems. The red-crowned crane population has grown rapidly due to careful protection measures, but this has also resulted in an increase in the damage that red-crowned cranes cause, such as damage to crops. The wetlands that have been used as breeding grounds are also now too small, resulting in cranes breeding near where people live. These cranes then help themselves to farmers’ crops or get into their barns and eat the cows’ feed, because it’s much easier than searching for the food they are meant to eat. Red-crowned cranes are clever birds that learn quickly, and can become pests if left unchecked.

To make matters worse, Japan’s feeding policies have changed. Since Hokkaido’s red-crowned cranes are concentrated in the Kushiro area, the sanctuaries in the area have been required to reduce winter feeding by half over a five-year period in an attempt to spread the population across a wider area. But in winter, the ground is covered with snow and the foods in the cranes’ natural diet cannot be found. So what will happen to the cranes that cannot get enough to eat as a result in this reduction of feeding? I think we all know the answer to that.

The local citizens are also opposed to this policy, but the government will not change it. The red-crowned crane’s near-extinction, the rediscovery of a population, the current protection…people are responsible for all of that. The lives of wildlife like this are in our hands. I feel like we have become a human-centric world and coexistence with wildlife is far from our minds.

Now that the red-crowned crane population has increased, there are things we need to do.

Red-crowned crane and cow

Red-crowned crane and cow © Miyuki Kawase


Miyuki Kawase

Director, Akan International Crane Center [GRUS]

Miyuki Kawase was born in Akan Town (now the Akan-cho district of Kushiro City). She began working at Akan International Crane Center [GRUS] in 2006, fostering a love of red-crowned cranes among Japanese and non-Japanese people alike by teaching visitors about the habits and charms of these birds. Her hobby is taking photos of wild birds, especially red-crowned cranes!

Miyuki Kawase

Access & Maps

Akan International Crane Center [GRUS]
Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary
Tancho (Red-Crowned Crane) Observation Center
Otowa Bridge