Happy with the Birds of Happiness: Watching Cranes in Linum

One of the most amazing natural spectacles that has always fascinated us humans can be observed around Linum, a small village near Berlin: the migration of cranes to their wintering grounds. Several tens of thousands of these beautiful birds stop over in this very special area every year.
Common Cranes (Grus grus) in the early morning in Linum, Germany

Linum, Germany. It is still dark when we get out of the car. The cool, damp morning air hits us. I listen. They can’t be overheard, there must be thousands of them. The “Birds of Happiness” are getting ready to take off. We grab our photo equipment and head for the observation tower. Soon the sun will rise. Then the cranes will fly out to the fields around Linum and have their breakfast.

The morning crane flight is one of the most impressive wildlife experiences in Germany.

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flying cranes in Linum at sunrise
In Linum many cranes rest in a small area. This makes the morning and evening crane flight here particularly impressive.

After 500 meters we reach the observation tower. From here we have a good view of two ponds of the Linum pond landscape. On one side, the cranes are knee-deep in the water of their roosting pond. They have company of countless geese and ducks. On the other side, the sun is rising, coloring the sky in a brilliant orange.

First the geese fly up and head for their grazing grounds. Only then do the cranes set off for the harvested cornfields. Hundreds or even thousands of them fly over our heads. What a spectacle! Their calls resound from all sides. After thirty minutes, only a few stragglers can be seen in the sky. It becomes quiet again over the ponds. Time for breakfast and a strong coffee. While I sit in the bakery the calls of the cranes still resound in my ears. A sound that will accompany me for the rest of the day. 

cranes in pond in Linum
At gathering and resting places of cranes there is a fixed daily rhythm. During the night, the cranes sleep in the shallow water, with the first dawn they seek calling contact with the other animals.
cranes in Linum
Being together in groups gives the cranes security and minimizes the effort required to secure and observe the surroundings. This allows the animals to make the most of the daytime for feeding.

Crane Resting Site Linum

Linum is a small village west of Berlin. Together with the roost Nauen, Linum forms the Rhin-Havelluch resting place. It is the most important crane resting site in Germany. Every year thousands of cranes and geese stop here on their way to the warm south. The first animals arrive already at the end of September. In October, the numbers reach their peak with up to 80,000 and 90,000 animals. By mid-November, most of the cranes have already flown on to southern France or Spain.

But what makes Linum such a popular resting place for the cranes? There are essentially two things: a richly laid table as well as a safe roost.

Number of cranes near Linum
The daily populations in the crane roost Linum are considerable. By the way, the count always takes place once a week on Tuesday.

Land of Milk and Honey

When the cranes migrate to the warm south in the fall, they need an especially large amount of energy. In order to replenish their energy stores before the long flight, the cranes stay in Linum for about two weeks. Here they find enough food in the fields. In particular, the many harvested corn fields in the area are attractive to the cranes. A land of milk and honey for the cranes, so to speak.

group of cranes in Linum
The gender of cranes is difficult to distinguish externally. However, males are on average slightly larger and heavier than females. Young birds have a uniform light gray-brown coloration. The head is without black and white markings.

A safe Place to Sleep

The special thing about Linum is that in addition to a richly laid table, there are also large areas of shallow water. The ponds at Linum were created by years of peat cutting. Later they were used for fish farming. Furthermore, the landscape here is crisscrossed by many small drainage ditches. This allows to regulate the water level in the ponds and the surrounding meadows. In order to support the cranes, in autumn the water of some ponds is drained to such an extent that the cranes have a perfect roosting place. Moreover, some meadows in Linum are also flooded. In this knee-deep water, the birds feel safe from foxes, raccoons and wild boars.

The cranes are also protected from humans on their roosts. This is because the ponds are surrounded by dense reeds and can only be seen at certain observation points. In addition, many paths are closed to humans during the migration season. The roosts of the cranes are limited to a very narrow space in Linum and there are no suitable ponds for easy evasion in the immediate vicinity. Therefore, the protection of these roosting sites is especially important here.

Linum pond
The Linumer Teichland consists of several artificially created ponds in which carp are bred. They were created after the peat bog was drained and the landscape became marshy again.

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Migration Routes of the Cranes

There are several migration routes on which the cranes migrate to their wintering areas. As a rule, the long route is completed in stages of 10 to 100 km. In this way, the birds adapt to the weather conditions and thus take advantage of optimal flight conditions.

On the western European migration route, mainly cranes from Scandinavia and the Baltic states fly north-south through Germany. Many of them make a stopover in Linum. Their wintering grounds are in southern France and in the Spanish Extremadura and Andalusia. Some animals migrate even further to Portugal or North Africa. With the rich food supply that the cranes find at the resting places, more and more animals have even been wintering in northeastern Germany since 2007.

The Baltic-Hungarian migration route, on the other hand, is mainly used by cranes from the Baltic States, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, as well as Finland and northwest Russia. Their wintering areas are in Tunisia, Israel and eastern Africa.

flying cranes at sunrise
Cranes usually fly in V formation or in diagonal rows. This reduces air resistance and ensures contact within the group. While flying, they communicate by calling loudly.

Population and Protection of the Crane

Thanks to many years of conservation efforts, the overall population of the common crane has rebounded in recent decades. In particular, the European population is growing. However, some populations are declining, others are stable or there are not enough dates available.

The global population is estimated at 491,000-503,000 individuals. Of these, about 130,000 breeding pairs live in Europe and about 11,000 breeding pairs in northern and central Germany. In Germany, the crane has been classified as not endangered since 1998.

To ensure that this status is maintained, effective crane protection is particularly important. Of particular relevance is the preservation of resting places between breeding and wintering areas.

Diversionary Feeding

At some crane resting places, such as the Darß-Zingster Bodden chain and on the island of Rügen, diversionary feeding is practiced. Grain and corn are used to distract the resting birds from new crops and reduce crop damage.

crane on a corn field in Linum
Many hours a day are spent searching for food. In autumn, crop remains and new seeds as well as insects form the main part of the diet.

Visitor Management

What happens when an animal becomes a tourist attraction? Even more so when that animal has a flight distance of 250 to 300 meters? To protect the crane, the Federal Nature Conservation Act prohibits both entering the breeding areas and visiting the feeding and gathering places. In order to avoid disturbance and loss of energy among the cranes, visitor management is essential. Information centers, crane rangers and signs inform visitors and remind them to observe with consideration. It is best to use the specially set up observation towers or to participate in a guided crane tour.

Storchenschmiede Linum
At eye level with a crane in the exhibition at Storchenschmiede Linum. Here you can find a lot of information about the cranes and tips for responsible observing. Photo: Dr. Till Pasquay.
Please be sure to observe all barriers and no-entry signs.

Area Protection

In Germany there is a “prohibition of deterioration” for nature and landscape. This means that every intervention in the landscape must be examined and compensated for through compensatory measures. The protection of wetlands and the breeding grounds is of particular importance here.

Jung crane and adult crane
Young cranes are nest-fledglers and follow the parent birds in search of food at the age of 24 to 30 hours. During their first weeks of life, the parents hand the chicks insects, worms, larvae and snails with their beaks. The young grow up quickly and are able to fly after about ten weeks.

Factsheet Common Crane (Grus Grus)

  • Height: 110 to 130 cm
  • Wingspan: 220 to 245 cm
  • Weight: Males five to seven kilograms, females five to six kilograms.
  • Life expectancy: Up to 25 years in the wild, up to 40 years in captivity.
  • Sexual maturity: At the age of three to five years.
  • Habitat: Forests and wetlands, such as fens and raised bogs, quarry forests, lake margins, wet meadows and marshes.
  • Food: Small animals, insects, corn and cereal kernels, seeds, peas, beans, peanuts, olives, berries, acorns, vegetables, potatoes, plant parts.
  • Flight distance in case of disturbance: 250 m to 300 m
  • Average speed in flight: 45 to 65 km/h
  • Daily distances during migration: 10 to 100 km, maximum 2,000 km possible
  • IUCN Red List Category: Least Concern
Common Cranes (Grus grus)
Characteristic for the crane are the black and white head and neck markings and the featherless red head plate. This swells with different excitation.

A Day with the Cranes in Linum

Cranes can be observed around the day in Linum. Most impressive is the morning flight to the grazing areas and the evening return to the roosts. The crane flight always takes place at the beginning of dusk. But long before it gets light, you can hear the cranes’ calls as they seek contact with other animals.

During the day, the cranes can be observed in the fields feeding or grooming their feathers. This is best done directly from the car or hidden behind reeds and bushes. Road closures and bans on entering the area must be strictly followed. Likewise, when observing from the road, of course, your own safety and that of other road users must be ensured.

Between late afternoon and dusk, the cranes meet at gathering places in the immediate vicinity of the roosts. Calling loudly, they gradually fly or walk in groups to the sleeping area. Even in the darkness, animals still arrive at the roosting sites. Their calls can be heard deep into the night.

Common Cranes (Grus grus) gathering in Linum - Kranich
Before heading to sleeping areas, cranes gather at nearby gathering sites.

Do Cranes make happy?

Cranes are often called “Birds of Happiness”. This name has its origin in Sweden. There, the arrival of cranes is an omen of spring, which brings warmth, light as well as abundance of food. Certainly a good reason to be happy. But even in autumn, when the migrating cranes are harbingers of winter, they make happy. In any case, after my day with the cranes in Linum, my happiness was at its best. Other people certainly have the same feeling. It’s not for nothing that up to 400 birdwatchers come to Linum every evening to watch the cranes fly in.

However, not only cranes, but also blackbirds, tits and sparrows make us humans happy. This was revealed in 2020 by a study conducted by the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research. Based on data from 26,000 people in 26 European countries, the study shows that individual life satisfaction correlates with the diversity of bird species in the environment. Thus, ten percent more bird species in the environment increase the feeling of happiness at least as much as a comparable increase in income.

Biological diversity thus plays an important role in human well-being. What will happen to our life satisfaction if species extinction continues at the current rate? What if more and more habitat is converted to monocultures and the birdsong fades away?

Common Cranes (Grus grus) landing in Linum - Kranich
Common Cranes (Grus grus) landing in Linum

Do cranes or a diverse bird life in your surroundings make you happy, too? Or do you have any questions or comments about my article? Then I would be happy if you write me a comment. I would also be very happy if you share my article with your friends. 

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Storchenschmiede Linum. https://storchenschmiede.org. Downloaded on October 5, 2021.

Kranichschutz Deutschland. https://kraniche.de. Downloaded on October 5, 2021.

BirdLife International. 2016. Grus grus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22692146A86219168. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22692146A86219168.en. Downloaded on 07 October 2021.

Methorst, J., Rehdanz, K., Mueller, T., Hansjürgens, B., Bonn, A., Böhning-Gaese, K. (2020): The importance of species diversity for human well-being in Europe. Ecological Economics, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2020.106917. Downloaded on October 8, 2021.

shape of two flying cranes
The crane is considered a symbol of prudence, vigilance, majesty and prudence and is called the "bird of happiness".

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