Mystery bird from Africa graces Los Altos Hills

By Lisa M. Krieger and Linda Goldston

San Jose Mercury News, November 29, 2006, pages 1A & 4A

Lisa M. Krieger / Mercury News

A tall and majestic East African crowned crane
has settled into an old orchard in Los Altos Hills.

Found: One East African crowned crane. Serious inquiries only.

The tall and majestic bird, 9,000 miles from its native home, has settled into an old Los Altos Hills apricot orchard, where it shares corn with quail, intimidates cats and thrills neighbors.

"I said to my husband: `Do you see what I see?' not really believing my eyes," said Sandra Humphries, who with neighbor Colette Cranston is keeping a watchful eye on the crane, which is the national bird of Uganda.

It doesn't seem to know that it's lost. It strolls contentedly through the fall foliage, scratching for seeds. It yields to passing cars. While wary of humans, it is not alarmed by them. It notes displeasure by flapping its wings.

Rumored sightings of the animal— "a Dr. Seuss character," said Cranston— first started circulating around this well-heeled rustic neighborhood about a week ago.

One resident complained of extra-large bird droppings on her porch. Others said they were startled late at night by an odd trumpeting call, a "u-wang, u-wang" sound.

Since then, it has been seen roosting in trees and crossing roads. Its plumage— gray, black and chestnut, with a top-knot of stiff golden bristles— glistens in the sun, despite recent rains. Local cats are intrigued, but give it wide berth.

In search of help, Cranston first called 911. Then, conceding it didn't pose a true emergency, she tried Wildlife Rescue. But the bird didn't exactly need rescue, nor was it native wildlife. The next stop was Palo Alto Animal Services, which said it would be happy to help, but only if the bird was hurt. The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department said the same thing.

Further calls to the San Francisco Zoo, Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve and the Los Altos-based Wildlife Conservation Network were dead ends, as well.

"How did it get here? Where did it come from?" asked Cranston. "We've never seen anything quite like this. It takes your breath away."

The crane most likely escaped from a private collection, said Mary Healy, director of the Sacramento Zoo and chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums board of directors.

Because the Los Altos Hills-based bird can still fly, it is doubtful it came from a zoo, Healy and other zoo officials said. Zoo birds have their wings pinioned when they are young, a surgery where one of the wings is made shorter than the other.

Also, Bay Area zoos say they aren't missing any birds.

And crowned cranes don't migrate, so it didn't take a wrong turn.

"It could not fly from Africa unless it had all its lotions and fluids in a three-ounce-or-less bottle in a one-quart Ziploc bag," Healy joked.

There are about 300 East African crowned cranes in zoo facilities in the United States— but for every crowned crane in a zoo, there are probably 10 in private collections, she said.

Healy said she recently visited a private collector near Sacramento who had about 100 crowned cranes. The regal birds are kept enclosed by mesh netting. Most now in the United States are bred here.

"I think it can survive here," said Colleen Kinzley, general curator of the Oakland Zoo, which used to keep crowned cranes. "They're relatively hardy birds. If it's well flighted, there's no more risk from predators than there is to large herons."

In the air, the biggest threat to the crane would be great horned owls, said Healy. On the ground, it might be prey to raccoons and coyotes, she said.

Crowned cranes can live as long as 25 years and survive on bugs and grain.

This crane's ability to fly also reduces the chance of recapture, even if a private collector had put an identifying band on one of its legs.

"Hopefully, the person it escaped from has fixed the problem" and no others will get out, Healy said.

The bird's fan club in Los Altos Hills has rolled out the welcome mat.

"As long as it's safe," said Humphries, "we'd be happy if it stayed."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at or (650) 688-7565.
Contact Linda Goldston at or (408) 920-5862.

2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Additional Story: Crane Loses Mate, But Owner Identified (Nov. 30, 2006)
Additional Story: Exotic Gray Crane Continues Life at Large (Jan. 7, 2007)

Crowned Crane Photos