Dance for Me, Crane, I Will Brew Beer for You


Grey crowned cranes above Lake Mutanda; photo by Lily Whittaker

Grey crowned cranes above Lake Mutanda; photo by Lily Whittaker

The grey crowned crane, popularly known as the crested crane, is called mutuhe (Rukiga), entuhe (Rufumbira) or umusambi (Kinyarwanda) in the languages of the Gorilla Highlands. It is a very important bird. The crane is the totem of the royal clan in Rwanda and the national bird of Uganda. It appears on the Ugandan flag and the coat of arms, as its feathers include all national colors (black, yellow, and red) and its friendly, gentle, and peace-loving nature matches the characteristics of the Ugandan people. The crane stands on one leg, meaning that Uganda is moving forward.

This tall bird is majestic-looking and carries a crown of stiff golden feathers. The crane’s long legs and neck and excellent sharp vision help it spot predators in the tall savanna grasses. Its range stretches from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya to southeastern South Africa. It is non-migratory, it only undertakes seasonal movements, and is most abundant in the wetlands, grasslands, and cultivated lands of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

The crane’s habitat is under attack as many swamps and marshes are being drained for agriculture or destroyed by pesticides. Its young ones are often captured and sold to zoos as attractions. Consequently the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists it as endangered.

Grey crowned crane; photo by Blasio Byekwaso

Grey crowned crane; photo by Blasio Byekwaso

Grey crowned cranes are famous for their courtship, especially the mating dance between the male and female. The dance is a breeding display that involves bobbing, flapping wings, bowing, jumping and swinging circles around each other; this dancing can happen outside of courtship as well.

Once two potential partners convince each other, they stay together for life; that is why the crane is a symbol of loyalty. They are normally found in pairs or in small flocks of 3 to 15 individuals. In the process of hatching its eggs, the female will separate from the rest of the flock and run away from the male because it isn’t in the best time to mate. A successful pair of parents keeps the family group together for almost a year. After that, the young birds often form their own flock and spend much of their time feeding in fields.

Cranes like insects, snakes, worms, frogs, small fish, grass tips and eggs. When large herbivores cause disturbance in the grasses, cranes benefit by preying on small animals. They also love to eat peas that farmers grow, particularly during germination. Villagers get ropes and wire them around their gardens on small poles so that cranes can’t wade through.

TRADITIONAL BELIEFS

– People think that cranes are able to bring rain, so rain makers would imagine cranes and imitate their movements in rituals to speed up the arrival of the rainy season.
– Marriages and relationships will reportedly last longer if the partners consume crane feathers and eggs.
– Crushed crane eggs mixed with herbs are offered as a love potion.
– Crane’s feathers, claws and beaks are used in drinks and as decorations for strengthening monogamy and affection, but also as an omen that keeps evil spirits away from children.
– When children encounter a crane, they sing “dance for me, crane, I will brew beer for you when the millet is ripe and we will take it together”. As soon as they stop singing, the crane dances and the children join in, learning dancing from the bird.
– If the crane lands on a family tree or roof and is chased away, especially during the night, this is bad omen; disease or death will befall the head of the family.
– Despite their beauty and elegance, the cranes make a horrible honking sound quite different from the trumpeting of other crane species. However, these honks help with telling time. The first ones begin right at 3am and continue every hour. Children that use this natural alarm clock are never late for school.

text: Jane Mulungi

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