It is sunny, wintry white. I'm in Hokkaido, Japan, during a particularly cold, snowy March. Icy wind lances through my many layers. No matter. The red-crowned cranes are gathered before me, jumping sporadically in jubilation, probing the marshy wallows for hibernating fish and frogs. Occasionally, one triumphantly waves a flailing snake. At night they roost in nearby streams, the water being warmer than air temperature. They are impressive birds. Long graceful necks daubed with black balance heads with white masks and bright red caps. Large, brilliant white wings end in a flourish of black ruffles. Emblazoned on kimonos, figured in ancient paintings, captured in thousands of beautiful photographs and folded by the thousands in origami, these tancho, as they are called in Japanese, have held the reverential admiration of Japanese through the eons. Today, they capture human hearts around the world.
Back to the cranes before me. Occasionally two start walking together in step, beaks heavenward, ululating, sometimes breaking out in their famous dance of graceful jumps, arched necks, and splayed wings. Every once in a while, one mounts the other. It's mating season. At other times they prowl the powdery snow for errant grains of... American corn?
The path to this foreign grain is a sad one. Japan and other countries once had many wetlands -- vital crane habitat -- hosting thousands of migrating cranes. No longer. Wetlands evaporated before waves of human agricultural and coastal development, and so did the cranes. Now numbering around 3,000 total, roughly half of these magnificent birds, the second rarest crane in the world, form a non-migratory last stand in the Kushiro wetland of eastern Hokkaido, the last large wetland in Japan, with the rest in China. Even the Kushiro wetland is only 183 square kilometers, a little over twice the size of Manhattan, and is being encroached by red deer. Free of natural predators and encouraged by a warming climate, exploding populations of these deer are stripping the bark from wetland brush.
Today, a network of farms voluntarily hosts feeding areas to help the cranes survive the winter with American corn bought by the Japanese government. It's a dicey situation at best. If the farm encompasses a crane breeding site, one pair will lay claim to it, keeping others from accessing feed. At other sites the normally territorial bird forms unnatural flocks of up to 300 birds, sometimes close to roads. And is a diet of corn, often containing pesticides, really that healthy for these endangered birds? Of the less than 50 percent of chicks that survive to fledge, some can expect to crash into the suspended wires that mark human existence, or get run over by vehicles as they stray across roads and tracks. I spent a nail-biting five minutes watching one wander onto a main road, and then wander off, safe... that time.