Crane Signal Dictionary: Part 2. Dance steps

See also Part 1: Social body language and Part 3: Attack & defense provide building blocks for dancing.

Dancing reflect emotional state. When a crane dances solo, the behavior reflects its emotional arousal. When crane pairs dance, they announce and reciprocate emotions. Responsive dancing promotes social bonding.

Dancing plays different roles as cranes mature:

  • Parents encourage young colts to dance. Dancing improves motor coordination, trains flight muscles, and facilitates communication skills. When cranes dance in family units, they announce and share emotions. We suggest that dancing engenders a crane version of empathy.

  • For yearlings and second-year cranes on staging areas, the act of dancing refines their postures, steps, sequences, and routines. Dancers size-up one another: same-sex dancers compete, but between the sexes dance is flirtation.

  • The courtship dances of mated pairs promote hormonal changes that hasten reproductive maturation. In staging ares, crane pairs jump, bob, and bow to one another. On nest territories, the pairs face-off at the outset and then often circle as they respond to each other in an emotional postural conversation.

An excellent Field Guide to Crane Behavior can be downloaded as a pdf from the International Crane Foundation. For our dictionary of crane body language, we are especially indebted to the "Sociogram" of Ellis and colleagues and also to others referenced below. In 2011, Waterford Press published our Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary 4.

We welcome emails that suggest improvements/corrections for this dictionary.



The crane stabs quickly down at the ground and then very briefly stands with wings spread.

This is a dynamic postural exclamation, coveying "Attention! Look at me! Let's dance!" It communicates arousal that is contagious. In a group of cranes at a staging area, it may recruit a partner.

A similar display in Sarus cranes is termed an "invitation to dance".1



Wings may be spread or swept forward and inward (photo to the right). Highly variable display.

Jumping may involve a single crane or a pair of dancers facing off, sometimes with vocalizations (left photo above).

Gape and gape-sweep


Bill is held open and may be swept left and right 45° as the crane stands aroused.

Gape may be mixed with Wing-spread-holds and Tuck-bob sduring a dance.


Jump-rake Jump-rake

A crane leaps into the air and kicks out toward another.

When the Jump-rake is used to attack a predator or an intruder crane (as in drawing from Nesbitt and Archibald6), the jump is higher and talons lash out to strike the opponent.


Bow Nebraska BowMillie

Hoover Head low, bare-skin- expanded, with wings held close or spread. Bowing is used for threat, often after alighting in a group of cranes (left photo). It follows copulation as shown above right and in drawingby. Ellis et al.2 who call it a "Hoover" (resembling a vacuum cleaner).


Spread-hold Spread-hold

Spreadhold Wings held out and may be fanned in this variable display that often leads into a Jump or a Gape.

In the photo to the left, Roy is molting primary feathers while dancing with a 3-week colt (click for hyperlink).


Toss Cattail While dancing, a crane may seize a feather, fling it (left above), and then watch it float to the ground (right above). A grass stem, a piece of cattail (right) or a stick can likewise be tossed.

The display is also called Throwing.



While dancing, cane stabs at the ground, grabs and pulls up a bit of plant material, and jumps at abn extreme backward angle while waving the vegetation. In this picture, the male was dancing with a colt.



Millie Single wing spin SinglewingJacquesSingle wing Jacques

While turning quickly, the crane extends the outside wing and pulls inside wing against body.
In left photo above, Millie (ruffled) spins clockwise toward Roy's Jump-rake.
Above to the right is a 2-month colt. Directly right is a gangly 3-week colt. Click on photos to see contexts.

Straight-leg high-step


Crane faces forward, body angled slightly up and head high, with wings held wide and cupped. Tthe crane takes a few steps forward, holding out each leg straight from the knee to the base of the toes as the bird high-steps, like a soldier in a ceremonial march. This display is also used as a threat.



Crane squats, tilting forward with wings held vertically and close to the body and primary feathers spread.



Wings are folded close to body with "elbows" raised. This display is seen when young colts are intently watching their parent as they learn to dance.


Wing spread forward bow

Body axis tilted forward, neck coiled tightly back, and wings spread with tips curved down. Millie (left) and Roy (right).

Moderate to high arousal display, sometimes in response to Run-flap-glide of the partner.



The crane bobs its head and then lowers its body with neck tightly coiled and bill held horizontally. Wings are partly spread and feathers are sleeked.

This is a dynamic display; a leap and/or a partial turn often follows. The drawing is a Japanese crane; the Tuck-bob is called the Stoop by Masatomi and Kitagawa.3


Japanese Crane Arch Arch

Neck arched with bill pointing up. In Sandhill Cranes, the wings are lifted and spread. A rare display for Sandhills and one that reflects high arousal. Roy, in the left photo, had arrived after migration to his traditional nesting territory just a few minutes earlier. Click for hyperlink to context.

In Red-crowned (Japanese) Cranes, arching is the iconic threat behavior often seen after a crane lands in a crowd of others. Red-crowned Cranes cup the wings inward and back over the body (photo above and drawing3).


Roy turns (tour) by jumping, usually taking three 120° jumps (jeté) for full rotatation. Roy usually looks into the turn. He rotates either clockwise (left three images show one jump-up, the landing, and the next jump-up over 1 second elapsed time) or counter-clockwise (right two images show a jump-up and the landing). Click on images for hyperlinks to the dances.

The display seqeunce is names for an advanced ballet move. Tuck-bobs may be interspersed between jumps.



The graceful circling of a pair with their wings extended. Other displays like Tuck-bob, Jump-rake, and Single-wing-spin may be interspersed as the pair rotates. Click on pictures for the hyperlink to the full dance sequence.


Salutet1salute3Salute 2

The male crane salutes, standing at attention for ~2 seconds while the female runs left-to-right in an arc and turns toward him to display.


In the midst of a dance, one of the pair may retreat and then rush back running, flapping, jumping, and gliding. According to Ellis2, this is mostly a female display and indeed Millie is shown in this photo. This high arousal display is rare.

The three photographs are sequential; total elapsed time less than a second. Click on any photograph for the full context.


1. Ali S, Ripley SD 1987. Compact Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, 2nd edition. Volume 2, page 142.

2. Ellis DH, Swengel SR, Archibald GE, Kepler CB 1998 A sociogram for cranes of the world. Behavioral Processes 43:125-151.

3. Masatomi H, Kitagawa T 1975. Bionomics and sociology of the Japanese Crane, Grus japoniensis, II. Ethogram. Jour. Fac. Sci. Hohhaido Univ. Ser. VI, Zool. 19:834-878.

4. Yuncker-Happ C, Happ GM 2011. Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary. Waterford Press. []

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