The sarus crane: Walking tall in the wetlands of north India

Print edition : September 11, 2020

In the breeding season, the red head of the sarus crane becomes brighter and takes on vermilion hues, which is an indication of its fertility. Photo: Kailash Navrang

Six feet in height, the sarus crane is the tallest flying bird in the world and towers over the two-feet-tall purple moorhen in the mushy marshlands. Photo: N. Shiva Kumar

A family of four in close proximity to each other. The adults keep the young ones safe by providing them with protective flanking. Photo: N. SHIVA KUMAR

A rare congregation of 10 sarus cranes, usually noticed while roosting at dusk or while bonding in the non-breeding season. Photo: Rajesh Bhalla

Sarus cranes pair for life, yet every year in the lush landscapes during the monsoon season, they display a dramatic hopping dance to strengthen their bond. Photo: N. SHIVA KUMAR

It is vital that the egg and newborn chick are protected against the elements and feral dogs, so the male and female sarus crane take turns guarding the nest and chick. Photo: Kailash Navrang

Thd Dhanauri wetlands in Gautam Buddha Nagar district, Uttar Pradesh. Sarus cranes prefer such vast freshwater swampland habitats with minimum disturbances where they can frolic in peace. (There is a sarus crane pair at the top right-hand corner of this panoramic photograph.) Photo: N. Shiva Kumar

Being tall and with an average weight of 9 to 10 kg, the sarus crane sometimes needs to run with few long steps to before lift-off into the air. Photo: N. SHIVA KUMAR

Wing-stretching is another ploy the sarus crane has adopted to communicate and also to exercise its outsized wings that can spread up to 8 feet (2.4 m). Photo: Winayak Kumar

The sarus crane’s black-tipped primary feathers (at the edge of its massive wings) support the bird’s mid-air manoeuvres and help it during landing. Photo: N. Shiva Kumar

A sarus crane pair welcomes its first chick, with another egg yet to hatch in the large ground nest that has been made on a grassy mound in the wetlands. Photo: Kailash Navrang

While a sarus crane is busy in its ponderous way looking for titbits in the grass, a cow in proximity to it is equally busy munching grass. Photo: Coomaar Carthik

Village residents tending to their cattle usually ignore the wading sarus cranes as they go about their daily duties. Photo: N. SHIVA KUMAR

The sarus crane, which has been known and loved since ancient times for its extreme fidelity and dramatic dance rituals, has disappeared from India’s neighbourhood but is somehow surviving in the country, mainly in the wetlands of Uttar Pradesh.

Binoculars go hand in hand with birdwatching, but I do not need them to see the sarus crane, the world’s tallest flying bird. My camera is able to capture the essence of this regal creature that saunters with aplomb. On June 21, 1999, during the first national survey of sarus cranes, which was called “The Collaborative Sarus Crane Count”, I eagerly gazed into the grasslands of Mathura district in Uttar Pradesh to catch a glimpse of the bird’s bobbing red head above the grass line as I drove my 4×4 vehicle tentatively over rutted fields. A sarus crane, which stood nearly six feet (1.8 metres) tall, was, with a measured gait and an elegant attitude, pecking for its food. Sometimes it stretched its imposing wings, measuring eight feet (2.4 m), while foraging for food in the grass growing next to rice fields.

Before daybreak, on that longest day of the year in June, I had driven 200 kilometres from Delhi. Once out of the bustling capital, I drove along National Highway 2, the erstwhile Grand Trunk Road, which was flanked by cultivated fields. I had come prepared to spend a full day pursuing sarus cranes. My target was to provide photographic evidence of the cranes by scrutinising the key areas of the 3,330 square km of Mathura district as I was acquainted with the lay of the land.

First encounter

The first time I saw the splendid sarus crane was in 1987 at the 29 sq km Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (now the Keoladeo National Park) in Rajasthan: two pairs were walking nonchalantly with feral cattle at the Kadamb-Kunj marshlands. It is not unusual to be smitten with a bird that shows a distinct behaviour, for example, the boisterous baya weaver bird in the breeding season or the collared falconet, a diminutive raptor, stalking a Himalayan bulbul in mid-air. Similarly, it is a pleasure to watch a sarus crane love-pair standing side by side, grooming or partaking in silent gossip. They even utter guttural calls in unison that shatter the silence of the landscape to reassure themselves of their mated status. Since that first encounter three decades ago, the sarus crane has been my muse.

Recently, I decided to indulge my passion for birding and visit the Surajpur Bird Sanctuary in Greater Noida and the Dhanauri wetlands in GautamBuddha Nagar district, Uttar Pradesh. They are situated about 20 km and 52 km respectively from my residence in Noida in the National Capital Region. The sarus crane happens to be the State bird of Uttar Pradesh as 70 per cent of the sarus crane population in India is found in the State. Interestingly, Uttar Pradesh is densely populated with about 23 crore humans and intensely farmed, and yet is a perfect home to the sarus crane. The mighty perennial river Ganga with multiple tributaries passes through the entire geography of Uttar Pradesh and keeps the terrain naturally well irrigated. These waterways continuously refresh and preserve wetlands even though cultivation has led to the proliferation of mosaics of marshy stretches. These favourable conditions have given over 300 species of aquatic birds, particularly the dominating sarus cranes, a geographical advantage for feeding, breeding and brooding.

B.C. Choudhury, a wildlife specialist, formerly with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), spearheaded the first three national sarus surveys, or counts, two decades ago, that is, in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He explains that the aim was to research the ecology of the sarus crane, obtain data about the bird on a national level, understand its population dynamics and provide the necessary baseline data for the conservation of its habitat. Countrywide information on the sarus crane was needed to involve people from all walks of life both in the preservation of the species and in spreading awareness. Although annual counts have been carried out at the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary since the 1980s, nationwide quantitative data were unavailable. Regrettably, the WII’s annual sarus crane count project became defunct after three surveys for lack of government funding.

Because the sarus crane species has the habit of bonding and pairing for life, it became a symbol of affection, love and fertility, and this led to it being protected in Uttar Pradesh. These monogamous attributes have safeguarded the cranes. In the three national surveys the WII and associated organisations carried out, they found that the involvement of States and dedicated volunteers were essential to arrive at a realistic sarus status in the country. The surveys clearly showed that Uttar Pradesh hosted the majority of the population of this species in India but invariably with a spillover into neighbouring wetlands in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. When the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department conducted its first State-wide sarus count on June 20, 2010, it found 12,246 flourishing individuals. A survey the Forest Department carried out in 2018 found about 16,000 plus sarus cranes. It also found that the bird was evidently evolving a preference for agricultural and rural landscapes. With no comprehensive survey of sarus cranes having been conducted in recent years at the national level, ornithologists have guessed that the countrywide sarus population is around 25,000.

However, in later years, the WII’s national assessments have provided ample impetus and credibility for future scientific and systematic surveys. The WII encouraged a few States to conduct sarus counts. Local non-governmental organisations were invited to participate in sarus surveillance as no special equipment, not even binoculars or spotting scopes, was required to see these big birds. Similarly, the Zoological Survey of India conducted a rapid study-survey in 2006-07 in a dozen districts of Uttar Pradesh and found 603 sarus cranes. The highlight was the discovery of a single flock of over 100 cranes in Chamarpura village in Mainpuri district on February 8, 2006. In 2007-08, 30 village sarus protection groups conducted a survey in Kota, Bundi and Baran districts of Rajasthan covering 95 wetlands with the help of the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, United Kingdom. Choudhury motivated and monitored this assessment too. The number of sarus cranes was estimated at 60. I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany Choudhury on one of his field visits to a village near Kota as I happened to be watching tigers in the vicinity at the time, in the Ranthambhore National Park.

The Indian sarus is an omnivorous wetland wader and one of the largest of the 15 species of cranes in the world. Its plumage is light grey to pale purple and its long legs are red; it has a light green skin crown while the rest of its head and upper neck are covered with red skin and its ear is enhanced by a small area of greyish feathers. This colouring helps the sarus crane merge into the background.

Since ancient times in India, sarus cranes have been known not only for their extreme fidelity but also for their dramatic dance rituals performed before and during the mating and nesting season. Sarus cranes can be found painted on the pages of Akbarnama, or Book of Akbar, which is the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar, the third Mughal emperor (1556-1605).

At present, there are three global populations of the sarus crane thriving independently: northern Indian, which is the largest; South-East Asian; and northern Australian. Sarus cranes have been more or less decimated in the countries neighbouring India and are surviving by the skin of their teeth in India, explains K.S. Gopi Sundar of the International Crane foundation, who is based in India.

After participating in the WII’s first national sarus survey, my interest in the sarus crane grew by leaps and bounds, and I cherished the sightings of the stately bird on my numerous random countryside twitcher trips. For instance, in Bera, Rajasthan, on the rocky terrain along the Jawai river, I saw two pairs of sarus cranes jostling for space with flamingos. While travelling by train or road on several occasions along National Highway 2 near Palwal in Haryana, I have seen sarus cranes ambling along in cultivated fields. The Sultanpur and Bhindawas bird sanctuaries in Haryana have resident sarus cranes that breed infrequently.

On March 7, just before the lockdown, while travelling towards Nal Sarovar Lake from Ahmedabad, I saw a family of four and a group of six on the roadside. At present, even during the lockdown, my preferred getaway is a trip to the Dhanauri wetlands, which the ardent birder Anand Arya discovered in 2014. He has regularly recorded over a dozen, and even up to 100, sarus cranes at these wetlands over the past seven years. He is now persistently working for protection for these wetlands and to get the area declared a sarus sanctuary. However, in all my trips to Dhanauri, I have yet to encounter more than 17 sarus specimens in a single day and definitely hope to see a more prominent congregation in the days to come.

My finest encounter of a sarus pair, undoubtedly, was in the winter of 2002, at my favourite destination, the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. That particular day in February was cold and foggy and I could literally see nothing beyond my nose. But my favourite cycle rickshaw wallah, Raju, with licence plate number 7, had his bearings. “Let’s hurry up, sir, we may have an exceptional sighting of the white crane at close quarters,” he said. He cycled 4 km to reach the spot, and at the edge of the mud-bund, we could clearly hear the commotion of the cranes. Still nothing was visible in the misty morning. Braving the chill, we sat on the cold grassy ground for half an hour, though it seemed like ages. As the mist vaporised like magic, there was an extraordinary sighting of an Indian sarus crane pair fiercely protesting against a Siberian crane couple. The vocalisation and open wing-flapping persisted until the Indian pair succeeded in shunting the Siberian pair from their patch of peat bog. I was just about 70 feet away from the birds and another birder-cum-photographer, who had arrived earlier, was busy shooting.

It was an extraordinary encounter, but alas, that was to be the last sighting of Siberian cranes in India as they never came back to the country and are presumed extinct in India. Will the non-migratory sarus crane face the same fate or will it manage to flourish in the wetlands and rice fields of the Indian landscape?

N. Shiva Kumar is an independent journalist and photographer specialising in wilderness and travel.

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