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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 24

From Issue No 24

A crane named Tappie

 

Blue Crane – Anthropoides paradiseus (Afrikaans: Bloukraanvoël)

 

Most of the Blue Cranes in the world occur in South Africa, with only a small, isolated population at Etosha in northern Namibia (that is just a different way of saying the species is endemic to the region). This elegant crane, South Africa’s national bird, may be seen in grassland areas of the country, also near vleis, but are absent from the dry northwest. They sometimes congregate in flocks of hundreds, but usually in smaller groups of about ten.

Blue Cranes indulge in elaborate courtship displays that may last several hours. One or two eggs are laid in a nest that is just a shallow scrape in the ground, with the nesting bird completely exposed. The birds roost on shallow dams or vleis at night, and at about six days old the chicks can already swim easily.

What look like tail streamers are not tail feathers at all, but wing streamers that protrude beyond the quite short tail.

In the 1970s the Blue Crane population was healthy throughout its range, but thereafter numbers started to decline in the Free State, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape (though with no record of a decline in the Eastern Karoo, and recently growing numbers in the Overberg and Swartland). The birds are vulnerable to changes in their habitat, e.g. replacement of grassland by plantations, and also to poisoning by agricultural chemicals – in one instance about 600 birds were killed! Then the Crane Protection Group all over the country got busy. In the Overberg it was led by Wicus Leeuwner, a farmer in the Caledon district. The first Overberg crane count about seven years ago totalled just over 400 birds; in 2006 it was up to over 4 000! Well done everybody – Blue Cranes certainly deserve all the protection they can get.

The following is the true story of one such bird. It all happened thirty years ago. Mr de Villiers, an attorney from Somerset West, and his family were returning home after a visit to Johannesburg. On their way through the Free State they saw a big bird lying in the road. Being an animal lover, he stopped to see what had happened and found that the bird was alive, but its one wing was broken, having been hit by a car. He picked the bird up and with his wife’s help got it into the boot. They found a vet in the nearest town and he quickly had the bird on his table. The wing was so badly fractured that the vet removed half of it. After the wound had been stitched up and an injection given to the bird, Mr de Villiers asked the vet what kind of bird it was. The Afrikaans-speaking vet told them it was a “kraanvoël”, and that they became pets easily; it should be fed whole mealies which had been cooked for 15 minutes. Although Mr de Villiers was English-speaking, he grasped most of what the vet told him.

Back in the car, bird and all, they headed for their small-holding in Somerset West. They arrived late at night and immediately looked to see if the bird had survived. Fortunately all was well. That night the bird stayed in the garage and the next morning, after being fed his bowl of cooked mealies, he was put in the paddock with four horses. The bird immediately made friends with the horses.

When Mr de Villiers looked up the word “kraanvoël” in an Afrikaans dictionary, they could not find it, only “kraan” which is a tap. And that’s how it happened that the blue crane was christened Tappie!

After being with the de Villiers’s for two years Tappie had to find a new home, because the paddock was to be developed. At the time I was the curator of the Helderberg Nature Reserve and they asked me if they could donate Tappie to the reserve. That same afternoon Tappie moved in. He would never fly again, but at least he now had a few hundred hectares to roam in. He shared the reserve with Peggy, that grand old mother goose, and spent most of his time around the duck pond and on the lawns where visitors picnicked. That was how Tappie met a lady from England on holiday with her sister in Somerset West. Every day for the following month she brought tasty snacks for him in her bag. The next year she was back, and again came to visit Tappie almost every day. Another year went by and then her sister phoned with the sad news that she was very ill and would not be able to come to South Africa again. A few months later she passed away. In her will, though, she had left funds to erect a bench next to the dam where she and Tappie always had their rendezvous. It was to have a simple plaque with the words “In memory of Tappie the crane” inscribed on it. Nothing else. The bench is still there.

Then, about six months later, Maxon, my assistant, informed me that Tappie had not come down to the duck pond at feeding time. It was very strange since he had never before missed a single feed. Ten days later Maxon found Tappie’s remains in a clump of proteas, obviously killed by a caracal. Just a few bones and feathers were scattered around.

About two weeks later a young student, Carl de Boor, who came walking in the reserve two or three days a week, found the nest of a Cape Sugarbird with eggs in it. The nest was made entirely of Blue Crane feathers – Tappie’s of course! When well-known ornithologist Professor Gerry Broekhuizen heard about it, he had a glass-covered cabinet ready for this unique nest once the chicks had fledged. It would have been a wonderful monument to Tappie the crane, but unfortunately Homo horribilensis came along and stole the nest – a most regrettable incident.

 

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Tappie the Blue Crane at Helderberg Nature Reserve

Tappie the Crane at Helderberg Nature Reserve

A Blue Crane inspecting her two eggs in the shallow nest

A Blue Crane inspecting her two eggs in the shallow nest

Blue Crane chicks can feed themselves ten days after hatching

Blue Crane chicks can feed themselves ten days after hatching

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