Crane Lufthansa
© Harry Eggens/Alamy

Tripping the air fantastic

  • TEXT MARC BIELEFELD

No bird glides as elegantly across the skies: Revered for millennia, the crane has been Lufthansa’s emblem for nearly 100 years. A portrait of the bird that migrates south each fall. 

The takeoff preparations for this long-haul flight are comparatively simple: no checklists, no refueling, no catering. With proudly erect head, the crane strides across the meadow, as leggy as a giraffe and with a profile resembling a Concorde. It reaches its runway, points its beak into the breeze, registering even the slightest gust, briefly ruffles its feathers and then emits a loud bugle call, just one in the mixture of rattles, whoops and cheeps cranes use to communicate with other members of their clan.

One crane’s voice is better than the chirping of a thousand sparrows

Japanese proverb

Then it’s showtime: From its slightly ungainly, upright land mode, the crane moves into an aerodynamic flight position, stretches forward, lowers its long, sinuous neck and launches into a fast run, like a sprinter. Its bony legs pick up speed and its slender body shoots gracefully forward like an arrowhead just above the ground. Finally, its wings unfurl, vast feathered sails that flap elegantly, increasing its ground speed.

The crane caresses the air, shoveling it downward. With each beat, its curved wings with their fan of pinion feathers remain at their highest position for a second before the crane exerts all its might to bring them so far down again that the tips almost seem to brush the ground beneath its body. The crane gathers speed.

Only six wing beats later, it takes off. With belly perfectly horizontal to the ground and legs gracefully outstretched beneath its body, the crane soars off – without a single glance back. This bird knows no melancholy, there are no farewells to the spot of earth that fed and sheltered it for the past seven months. The urge to move on dominates every fiber of its body. If there is one thing the crane loves more than anything else, it is travel and flying.

 

A Eurasian crane comes in to land at Lake Hornborga, one of the best-known bird lakes in Sweden

A Eurasian crane comes in to land at Lake Hornborga, one of the best-known bird lakes in Sweden

© Stefan Holm

  During the fall migration, nearly half a million cranes will have flown south by mid-December to overwinter in warmer climes. They fly from Russia and Scandinavia all the way down to southern Europe, many even continuing on to Africa. On the western European migratory path alone, a population of almost 350 000 cranes is setting off for their wintering grounds.

Many of the birds fly over Germany, stopping off to rest briefly, since they need to land from time to time. They descend in swarms upon Western Pomerania, Rhinluch in Brandenburg, Luch in Havelland, the Helme Reservoir in the southern Harz Mountains and the lowland moors around Diepholz. The majority will head to a reservoir in France to take a breather and eat their fill in the surrounding fields. Then they fly over the Pyrenees toward Madrid and down to the Extremadura, to Portugal or even further, over Gibraltar to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. There are  fifteen species of this elegant bird; the sandhill crane is the most common species, followed by the Eurasian, or common, crane. Thanks to extensive conservation, cranes are thriving, and their populations increasing rather than declining. The sight of thousands of these magnificent birds flying over islands and swamps is sure to stop anyone in their tracks.

The common crane (Grus grus) is the largest bird native to Europe. It stands up to 1.30 meters tall and has a wingspan of up to 2.45 meters. The bird’s plumage is light gray, with black-and-white feather patterns on its neck and a bare red crown – a most attractive flying object.

Its technical specifications are also pretty impressive: It flies by flapping its wings in slow, but very powerful motions, and makes use of thermals to gain height. Cranes can glide at altitudes of between 500 and 4000 meters, covering great distances at speeds of up to 65 kilometers an hour. Some cranes can cover distances of up to 12 000 kilometers a year, traveling the world in V formations, continually changing positions to fly in the slipstream of the bird ahead to save energy.

 

Flying in smart formation: Cranes cover up to 12 000 kilometers per year in the slipstream of the bird ahead

Flying in smart formation: Cranes cover up to 12 000 kilometers per year in the slipstream of the bird ahead

© Jeremy Woodhouse/gettyimages

  Cranes are capable of astonishing feats of endurance, as can be seen in their spectacular courtship dances. In 2014, scientists fitted a female with a transmitter; the data they received revealed that it took her just five days to fly from northern Belarus to the south of the Sinai peninsula, crossing the eastern Mediterranean without stopping and continuing her journey after a short break in Israel to land at Lake Tana in Ethiopia – a staggering 5100 kilometers in eleven days. Also, cranes do not require large energy reserves. They forage for berries and grains, eat insects and snails, and snack on the occasional frog.

This diet appears to be sufficient for high-altitude flight. In Asia, demoiselle cranes even fly across the Himalayas from Tibet to India. Cranes have been spotted there at altitudes of around  7 600 meters, flying for days to avoid the storm-whipped mountain flanks and then catching a favorable wind to take them over the icy massifs and down to the south. Cranes know exactly what they are doing; their ancestors were flying as early as the Tertiary, 54 million years ago. There is another reason why the crane is revered, and why Lufthansa chose it as its emblem. Few other flying creatures have such an archetypal shape: The crane’s body practically represents the ideal aircraft. It doesn’t have the short legs of the eagle, nor the large, clumsy feet of the albatross. Its outstretched body is like the ultimate aerodynamic fuselage, borne through the air on graceful wings.

These dancers of the air have been inspiring people for millennia. Egyptian mythology worships the crane as the “sun bird” and the “messenger of the gods”; to the ancient Greeks, it was a symbol of vigilance and wisdom, although Homer’s Iliad portrays it as a ravenous predator hovering above the swamps of the Nile Delta. In Sweden, the crane is the “bird of fortune” that heralds the arrival of spring. A hero in music and painting, it soars through poetry and literature and is mentioned by Goethe and Schiller, Kleist and Brecht. For thousands of years, the crane has been used as a decorative symbol, honored as a cosmopolitan creature that effortlessly transcends all borders. The Chinese regarded the crane as “a bird of the first order,” in India, it was the “most distinguished of all feathered creatures”. Far more moving than all these accolades, though, is the sight of a crane in the wild. No one who has witnessed the elegant flight of a crane will ever forget the sight. Like no other bird, the crane triggers an almost archaic response … you yearn to take off and fly, too.


 

The Lufthansa crane: In 1918, Otto Firle, a graphic designer and architect, conceived the famous Lufthansa crane trademark. His silhouette of the migratory bird depicts the wings slightly ­raised, as though taking off – an apt analogy for a fledgling airline. A timeless logo, the crane emblem has remained largely unchanged for nearly 100 years thanks to the values it embodies and its symbolism. At home all over the world, cranes grow to be almost as large and old as humans, and are regarded as birds of fortune and messengers of the gods.