You hear them long before you spot them — a distant brassy bugling that lifts your spirits. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact direction but then the trumpeting gets louder and suddenly you see them — etched across the western horizon, a string of wavy black shapes, gradually getting larger: And behind them, another wave and yet another. Within minutes, they are overhead, clamorous and happy as they circle the jheel, checking it out and gradually losing height. Then, long legs dangling, they begin their descent and touch down with a hop, skip and jump.
Yet again, the cranes have landed. These are demoiselles, the smallest of our visiting cranes, easy to identify by their relatively short stature and delicate white tassels on the sides of their faces. They have flown all the way from Central Asia and Siberia, at heights of 25,000 ft, dodging guns and golden eagles en route. This particular flock arrived much earlier, and, this evening, have only flown back from the surrounding grain fields they raided during the day. Here, they will spend the night, murmuring in the moonlight. Before dawn, they’ll line up in the jheel like flights preparing for take-off for another day in the sun.
No matter how many times you watch this spectacle, it lifts your spirits like few things can. There is something evocative about cranes which has attracted people the world over. Of the four species of cranes found in India, two are migratory — the common and the demoiselle. The rare black-necked crane breeds in Ladakh (also found in, Tibet, China and Bhutan), and, our only true home-grown crane, the stately sarus, now finds itself in trouble as its river-basin habitats in the northern plains are greedily encroached upon by humans. It’s a tall, statuesque bird, dressed in grey, with a red head and orange eyes and has been revered for its fidelity. It’s said that if one of a pair dies, the other will starve itself to death in grief.
For all their solemn dignity, cranes can let their hair down in a way few can match. They declare their undying love for one another, by dancing and capering around each other, throwing their heads back and trumpeting their joy for one and all to listen to and learn from. Their bugling carries long distances and there can be nothing as lonely as listening to a single sarus call from a moonlit mustard field and wait for a reply that does not come. And then, at last, you hear a response from some distance away and know that, hopefully, all will be well.
Having been in the sights of hunters’ guns and traps for aeons, cranes are wary birds. But they, too, can be won over — as have been the demoiselle cranes of Kichan village in Rajasthan. A villager and his wife, tasked with feeding pigeons every day, found one morning in August that around a dozen demoiselle cranes had invited themselves over for the buffet. Word spread, and, over the next few years, the size of the flock swelled from 100 to 200 and beyond. It’s astonishing to think how this might have happened. The pioneers obviously remembered the place (and its coordinates) and then, maybe had just been followed by more cranes during the next year and so on. In 2014, it was estimated that as many as 20,000 demoiselle cranes were spending their winters — from late August to early March — at Kichan. They are fed twice a day in special enclosures, going through 3,000 kg of bird seed every day, with contributions coming from the local Jain traders and tourists.
There was no such good fortune awaiting the beautiful Siberian or great white crane. This tall, snow-white bird, with its red head and face, was once a regular winter visitor at the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. Sadly, numbers dwindled year on year, until in 1992-1993 no Siberian cranes showed up at all. Some thought that Keoladeo no longer provided enough of the tubers and other hospitality that the birds required, others that they were shot to death while flying over Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan and the notorious Kurram valley from western Russia. Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that they will ever return. Fortunately, the species has not (as yet) gone extinct worldwide — the ones that visited us comprised just a part of the whole population.
The sarus crane, too, faces an uncertain future as we encroach upon its territory and shrink its range. One or two chicks are raised every year, assiduously looked after by their parents until independent. We can admire these stately birds round the year, especially during the monsoons when they breed. As the thunderclouds gather, these great dove-grey birds will toss their heads back, flounce their plumes, leap and caper and bugle their calls. But even when not involved in madcap dalliances with each other, these tall birds add grace and dignity to their surroundings through their proud bearing.