A Crane Display Dictionary

Cranes signal to each other through several modalities:

  1. Vocalizations - Ellis and his colleagues (1998) catalog 17 distinct vocalizations (calls, growls, purrs, peeps, etc). Some are loud and obvious but many are soft and audible only at very close range.
  2. Scents - Sex-specific odorants have been isolated from petrels (Mardon 2010) and budgerigars (Zhang 2010). Our behavioral observations suggest that cranes emit and perceive chemical signals. For a consideration of crane pheromones, see our Blogpost of October 9, 2010.
  3. Body language - Cranes use over 40 distinct displays and postures to communicate with other cranes (see references below). Crane body language can convey intentions or reflect specific emotions. Such emotions may be gentle or intense, reflecting low arousal such as slight irritation up to high arousal, such as stark terror.

As we can translate body language, we can understand crane conversations. Click on the links below for our three-part pictoral dictionary.

Crane Signal Dictionary: Webpage 1. Social body languageIntent to fly

Cranes communicate with static postures and dynamic movements. Their body language promotes social networking. The underlying motor behaviors, effectively "words" of crane body lanuage, can be appropriated as Dance Steps (Part 2) and used for Attack (Part 3).

Crane Signal Dictionary: Webpage 2. Dance Steps

Jump-rake Dancing is a medley of postures and steps, many of which also suggest social or agonistic messages. Skill improves with practice.


Crane Signal Dictionary: Webpage 3. Attack & defense


Outright physical attack between adult cranes is often avoided because of the refined social body language that keeps cranes out of each others' personal spaces.

The leaping and jumping of cranes on the attack is spectacular. Many of these behaviors are related to pre-conflict threat and social displays.

Any description of crane displays must pay tribute to the pioneering study based on meticulous observations of Japanese crane behavior by Masatomi and Kitagawa (cited below). An excellent Field Guide to Crane Behavior can be downloaded as a pdf from the International Crane Foundation. For our dictionary of crane body language, we are especially indebted to the "Sociogram" of Ellis and the references below.


Ellis DH, Swengel SR, Archibald GE, Kepler CB 1998 A sociogram for cranes of the world. Behavioral Processes 43:125-151.

Johnsgard P 1983. Cranes of the World. 2. Individualistic and social behavior. Papers in Biological Sciences, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, pp. 11-24.

Johnsgard PA 2011. Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. Ancient Voices over America's Wetlands. Bison Books, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Mardon J, Saunders SM, Anderson SM, Chouchoux C, Bonadonna F 2010. Species, gender, and identity: Cracking the petrel's sociochemical code. Chem Senses 35:309-321.

Masatomi H 2004. Individual (non-social) behavioral acts of hooded cranes Grus monacha wintering in Izumi, Japan. J. Ethol. 22:69-83.

Masatomi H, Kitagawa T 1975. Bionomics and sociology of the Japanese Crane, Grus japoniensis, II. Ethogram. Jour. Fac. Sci. Hokkaido Univ. Ser. VI, Zool. 19:834-878.

Russell N, McGowan KJ 2003. Dance of the cranes: Crane symbolism at Çatalhöyük and beyond. Antiquity 77:445-455.

Nesbitt SA, Archibald GW 1981. The agonistic repertoire of sandhill cranes. Wilson Bulletin 93:99-103.

Tacha T 1988. Social organization of the cranes from midcontinetal North America. Wildl. Monogr. 99:1-37.

Voss KH 1977. Agonistic behavior of the Greater Sandhill Crane. Eastern Greater Sandhill Crane Symposium, pp. 63-85.27.

Yuncker-Happ C, Happ GM 2011. Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary. Waterford Press.

Zhang J-X, Wei W, Zhang J-H, Yang, W-H. 2010. Uropygial gland-secreted alcohols contribute to olfactory sex signals in budgerigars. Chem Senses 35:375-382.

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