Most crane species possess red patches of scaly skin on their heads that they use extensively in threat displays. Stanley cranes, along with their close relatives, the demoiselles, do not have these red patches, but their head feathers are erect when excited or aggressive. The long dark feathers trailing to the ground behind these birds are actually wing feathers, not tail feathers. Crane tails are very short and usually not visible unless the crane raises its wings. The legs and feet are black.
Stanley cranes can be up to 3.5 feet (1 meter) long. Females are smaller than males.
This crane has the smallest range of any crane species: 99 percent of the world's 12,000 to 23,000 Stanley cranes live in South Africa. They prefer to feed and nest in dry, grassy uplands. They generally nest in high elevation grasslands, where there are fewer disturbances. During the winter, they move down the mountains to lower altitudes.
Most crane pairs leap and pirouette when dancing. While Stanley cranes also leap and bow, most of their dance consists of the two birds running together with the female in the lead. The excited birds often interrupt their chase to stop and call.
In the wild, they eat primarily seeds and insects. At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, they are fed crane pellets and insects.
Most Stanley cranes prefer to nest in places where they will not be disturbed, but some nest in agricultural areas. They lay two eggs in the grass or on the bare ground. The eggs are brownish-yellow marked with blotches of darker brown and olive. Incubation lasts 30 to 33 days, and the chicks leave the nest after three to five months.
The Stanley crane is the national bird of South Africa, and while this provides official protection, laws are difficult to enforce and often sometimes ignored. Farmers trying to protect crops sometimes poison Stanley cranes deliberately or accidentally, when the cranes eat poisoned bait intended for other species, or after routine dusting of crops. Closely associated with grasslands, they are sometimes victims of large forestation projects, which convert prime habitat into commercial tree plantations. In some areas of their range, populations have plummeted by 90 percent in just 10 years.
Growing human populations also place greater demands upon the environment as more acreage is converted to agriculture. Some Stanley cranes are captured and used as pets. Only a few cranes nest inside of protected areas, so the future of the Stanley crane depends largely on private landowners. These factors have given the Stanley crane the distinction of being perhaps the most endangered of all cranes.