Adult Red-crowned Cranes are snow white with black to the wings (appears almost like a black tail when standing, but the real tail feathers are white), blackish to the head and neck, and a patch of red skin on the crown. This patch of skin becomes brighter red when the crane becomes angry or excited. This species is among the largest cranes, typically measuring about 150 cm (5 ft) tall, 136 cm (54 in) in length (from bill to tail tip) and spanning 220–250 cm (87–98 in) across the wings. Typical body weight can range from 7 to 12 kg (15 to 26 lb), with males being slightly larger than females and weight ranging higher just prior to migration. On average, it is the heaviest crane species, although both the Sarus and Wattled Crane can grow taller and exceed this species in linear measurements. The maximum known weight of the Red-crowned Crane is 15 kg (33 lb).
In the spring and summer, the migratory populations of the Red-crowned Crane breed in Siberia (eastern Russia), northeastern China and occasionally in northeastern Mongolia (i.e., Mongol Daguur Strictly Protected Area). Normally the crane lays 2 eggs, with only one surviving. Later, in the fall, they migrate in flocks to Korea and east-central China to spend the winter. Vagrants have also been recorded in Taiwan. In addition to the migratory populations, a resident population is found in eastern Hokkaidō in Japan. The habitats used are marshes, riverbanks, rice fields, and other wet areas.
The crane eats small amphibians, aquatic invertebrates, insects, and plants that grow in marshes and swamps.
The estimated total population of the species is only 2,750 in the wild, including about 1,000 birds in the resident Japanese population. Of the migratory populations, about 1,000 winter in China (mainly at the Yellow River delta and Yancheng Coastal Wetlands), and the remaining winter in Korea.
The National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ran a program where U.S. zoos donated eggs which were flown to Russia and raised in the Khinganski Nature Reserve and released into the wild. This program sent 150 eggs between 1995-2005. The program has been put on hold in order to concentrate on different crane conservation programs in Russia, such as education and fire suppression (Red-crowned Crane SSP). Several hundred Red-crowned Cranes are kept in zoos around the world.
In Japan, this crane is known as the tancho and is said to live for 1,000 years. A pair of Red-crowned Cranes were used in the design for the Series D 1000 yen note (reverse side). In the Ainu language, the Red-crowned Crane is known as sarurun kamuy or marsh kamuy. At Tsurui they are one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan.
In China, the Red-crowned Crane is often featured in myths and legends. In Taoism, the Red-crowned Crane is a symbol of longevity and immortality. In art and literature, immortals are often depicted riding on cranes. A mortal who attains immortality is similarly carried off by a crane. Reflecting this association, Red-crowned Cranes are called xian he (仙鹤), or fairy cranes. The Red-crowned Crane is also a symbol of nobility. Depictions of the crane have been found in Shang Dynasty tombs and Zhou Dynasty ceremonial bronzeware. A common theme in later Chinese art is the reclusive scholar who cultivates bamboo and keeps cranes.
Because of its importance in Chinese culture, the Red-crowned Crane was selected by the National Forestry Bureau of the People's Republic of China as its only candidate for the national animal of China. This decision was deferred because the Red-crowned Crane's Latin name translates as "Japanese Crane".