These Revered Cranes Escaped Extinction. Can They Survive Without Humans?

Conservators vastly increased the numbers of red-crowned cranes, a symbol of loyalty and longevity in Japanese culture. That’s just a start.

By Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida

Photographs by James Whitlow DelanoMarch 21, 2022.

“KUSHIRO, Japan — The dance of the red-crowned cranes commenced, an impromptu pas de deux.

The pair approached each other with a bow. They crossed back and forth, gliding up into the air and returning to earth with the effortless grace of parachutes. In a dramatic flourish, they spread their pristine white and jet-black wings wide and tilted their beaks to the arc of blue sky above.

As this elegant courtship ritual unfolded, Kazuhiko Yamazaki, a vegetable farmer, drove a large red tractor onto a snow-covered field on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. From a green rotating funnel he dispensed about 40 pounds of corn to more than 50 red-crowned cranes, a bird revered in Japan as a symbol of loyalty and longevity.

Just over half a century ago, when Mr. Yamazaki’s grandfather started sprinkling corn kernels from a metal bucket onto that same field, only about three dozen red-crowned cranes were left in all of Japan. But thanks to a decades-long effort led by local conservators and subsidized by the Japanese government, the number of red-crowned cranes in Mr. Yamazaki’s town, Kushiro, has swelled to about 1,900.”

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