One frosty morning last week, I was out in the Fens again looking at Cranes. The nesting pair were back on territory, after some weeks of touring the Fens. Last year’s youngster was still in tow but will surely be given the boot as spring approaches. Cranes have had their most successful year in the UK since returning as a breeding bird, with up to 24 pairs rearing at least 13 youngsters. The Fens offshoot of the Broads population now seems well established
The winter food of these birds is a mix of agricultural remains and more natural foods from wet grasslands. The Cranes had been feeding extensively on beet tops earlier in the winter. One family party were feeding in a maize strip, picking cobs off the standing crop. Spuds seem to be a good food also. Spuds left in the ground after harvest may be favoured as they are fresher, but good farming practice usually leaves few available for the birds. Piles of dumped spuds have been used to attract birds but it appears Cranes prefer them fresh, so replenishing stocks may be the best approach. The birds I was watching were feeding on waste grain put out for them.Winter roost sites are important, with birds favouring shallow flooded areas. Ideally they will be close to feeding areas but birds will frequently fly some distance to a suitable roost.
So if we want to attract Cranes, or keep them in a particular area for viewing, why not grow small areas of sacrificial crops - spuds or maize, adjacent to wet grassland etc. Also, ensure that suitable winter roost sites are present. Shallow flooding of some cropped land would be beneficial. These techniques are well known to attract cranes and geese in the USA and such management would also benefit other farmland birds.