13 August 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Blue cranes and sheep

The elegant blue crane has some odd habits. It likes to dance, for a start, leaping and posing and often tossing strands of grass into the air. And then it has this thing for woolly beasts of the veld.

Blue cranes definitely favour sheep for extra-species company. Photo Chris Marais

This time of year, as you drive through the Overberg and Karoo, you might notice large flocks of our national bird, the blue crane, visible from the road.

In the Karoo as well as the Overberg, you’ll often find sheep and cranes together. But why?

Winter is the time of year that they gather in numbers – from a few dozen or even a few hundred in the Karoo, right up to a few thousand in the Overberg. (Actually, if you were pernickety, you might point out that the correct collective noun for cranes is a sedge, or a siege.)

Blue cranes are among the most elegant birds, and almost wholly endemic to South Africa. Photo Chris Marais

In spring they separate into pairs and return to their territories to dance and mate and raise chicks.

You might also notice something else: blue cranes definitely like to hang out with sheep. In the Karoo as well as the Overberg (their 2 major strongholds in the country), you’ll often find sheep and cranes together.

But why?

Crane experts like Kerryn Morrison and Bradley Gibbons of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s African Crane Conservation Programme confirm this is no coincidence.

Is it the food? Cranes do sometimes eat from sheep feed bins, and Gibbons notes that the sheep probably disturb insects as they move, which the cranes eat. They feed together and drink from the same troughs.

But the cranes also like to nest in the same camps as sheep and make nests with stones and sheep dung. It’s a relationship that seems to go beyond food.

Maybe they also love that distinctive sheepy smell? No one can say for sure ...

Category: Wildlife

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