Demoiselle cranes are migratory birds that breed across central Europe and Asia and winter mainly in north Africa, India, and Pakistan. They are birds of dry grasslands (which include steppe country and savannah), but stay within reach of water. The African Journey area of the Maryland Zoo houses these cranes.
Demoiselle cranes gather in large flocks to migrate. They depart their northern breeding grounds in early fall and return in spring. They maintain large flocks while on wintering grounds but disperse and show territorial behavior when nesting during the summer.
Like other cranes, Demoiselle cranes are monogamous and form pairs for life. They reinforce pair bonds by dancing. The birds perform ritualistic displays that include bows, leaps, runs, wing flapping, short flights, jerky bouncing, running, and stick tossing. Cranes of all ages, paired and unpaired, dance. Among younger birds, dancing may serve to reduce aggression with other cranes, provide physical exercise, and possibly relieve anxiety.
Demoiselle cranes are active during the day. They forage mainly during the morning hours in open grasslands and fields, then roost together for the rest of the day. They feed on seeds, grasses, other plant materials, insects, worms, lizards, and other small animals.
Demoiselle cranes are noticeable when gathered in large flocks on their wintering grounds and upon first arrival on their summer breeding grounds.
As the smallest of all cranes, Demoiselle cranes are more vulnerable to predators than other species. They are also over-hunted in some parts of the world. In places where they damage crops, they may be regarded as pests and be shot or poisoned.
Demoiselle cranes nest in steppe country. They prefer to nest in areas loosely covered with grass that still provide good viewing rather than in completely open areas. They nest directly on the ground, perhaps atop small stones, but they make no effort to find or build a concave cavity.
Females normally lay clutches of two eggs. Both sexes incubate the eggs, although females put in more time on the nests than males. Demoiselle cranes have the shortest of all crane incubation periods, from 27-29 days.
Pairs guard their nests aggressively, despite their small size. The male usually takes the lead, but both birds will divert danger by calling, dancing, charging, or feigning injury. There have been reported cases of several Demoiselle cranes cooperatively driving predators away from nesting sites.
Chicks leave the nest and begin to feed soon after hatching. If threatened, they will huddle on the ground in downy balls or attempt to hide under grassy cover. As the chicks become more mobile, the family starts to wander together, but never too far from water.
Demoiselle crane chicks fledge after 55-65 days, which is a very short period for cranes. The birds spend a month or so putting on weight in preparation for their fall migration. Young birds apparently accompany their parents on the fall migration and stay with them through the first winter.
Demoiselle cranes are abundant across a wide range and classified as a species of “least concern” with regards to conservation.