Crane migration in France

As I wrote earlier, on Wednesday 27 February 2013 we arrived in France, in the Champagne region, not so far from Lac du Der.

This is an important area for migration of ten thousands of Eurasian cranes.

This video is called Call of Eurasian Crane.

In this blog post, an important source for me is the booklet La grue cendrée en France. Migrations et hivernage – Saison 2011-2012; published by BirdLife in France.

Most cranes migrating through France nest in Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, or the Baltic countries. The cranes traveling furthest go to Morocco, but most birds winter in Spain. Individual cranes and groups of cranes differ in their migration behaviour. Weather may influence them. Still, most cranes travel in a rather narrow ribbon of France. From Champagne in the north-east to the Basque country in the south-west in autumn; the other way round in spring.

The importance of the Champagne region for migrating cranes is rather recent.

In the first half of the twentieth century, things went badly for cranes. Hunters killed them. Their breeding areas and intermediate stations during their long migration disappeared or shrunk. They need wetlands, which often gave way to “development”.

Later, the situation started to improve, especially in France. In 1960, hunting cranes became illegal.

In 1974, the French government created the Lac du Der-Chantecoq. The purpose of this biggest artificial lake in France is to stop flooding in Paris. The lake and its marshes and islets made for safe sleeping spots for cranes and other birds.

A third factor was the recent expansion of maize agriculture in Champagne. Maize, left on the fields after the harvest is good food for cranes during their autumn migration, and also still during their spring migration. The birds don’t need to fly far from their Lac du Der sleeping sites to feed.

This makes the cranes’ journey from northern Europe to Spain or North Africa easier. So much easier that quite some cranes don’t even bother to continue all the way to the Iberian peninsula or Morocco.

In 1981-1982, far less than a thousand Eurasian cranes wintered in France. In 2001-2002, it was 40,000. In 2011-2012, it was 88,000; mainly around Lac du Der and in the extreme south-west of France.

Also if one adds the numbers of cranes wintering in France to those wintering more to the south and passing through France, there is fortunately an upward trend: 40,000 in 1977-1978; 288,000 in 2011-2012.

Juvenile and adult cranes during autumn migration, photo: János Oláh

A crane’s life

Cranes often lay two eggs, but usually only one chick survives the time when it is unable to fly yet.

Young cranes, soon after having learnt to fly, go on their first autumn migration with their parents. In spring, they fly back with their parents to the nesting areas. Their plumage is less juvenile than earlier in autumn, but their young age is still visible.

In the nesting regions, the parents start a new breeding season. The youngsters join adolescent groups. There, they meet their partners for life. In their second summer, they change from juvenile to adult plumage. In their second autumn, they and their partners join migrating flocks. Next spring, they migrate back. They will then probably try to nest for the first time. First time nests are still often unsuccessful.

17 thoughts on “Crane migration in France

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