I recently see a photo of Demoiselle Cranes packed to brim at Pakshi Chugga Ghar (Bird Feeding Home) at Kheechan (Rajasthan) on the Sanctuary Asia Twitter. This is a unique phenomenon. Though, feeding grains to birds is ingrained in the culture and religion of Indians, but level at which it is done at Kheechan is massive. About a million Indian rupees worth of grain is spread in the BFH every year. The Home is about 300 sq m (50 m x 60 m) open air enclosed area on the periphery of the village, for birds to feed. During the migration season, Demoiselle Cranes visit the Home every day for feeding. The photo excites me. I have spent rare moments with the bird, people and place. Something cheers up inside me. I reflect for some time of the glorious days spent in this unique environ.
Coincidently, soon after this, I see a story on Ratan Lal Maloo, the grand old man who manages the Bird Feeding Home (BFH) at Kheechan – wildlife conservationist in common man grab! The Home is being run largely with donations from Jain community since mid-1980s.
This further excites me tremendously. I go into flash back.
It’s 8 October 2005. I am lodged with Sewa Ram Mali (another unconventional hard core conservationist) at his single story house, bang adjacent to BFH. It’s early in the morning, probably around 6 am. Sun is not up. I prepare a cup of tea and take stairs to go to terrace. It’s pleasantly cool. I pull a chair to the edge of the terrace overlooking BFH. I look around – All greyish, Nothing conspicuous, Not a soul, No action, All quiet…
Soon, there is little more light. I am sipping tea and enjoying leisurely stroll. I feel some wave is slowly progressing toward Kheechan, in the sky just above the horizon, from the south-west. When I could make it out, I am full of joy “there they come.” There is a formation of 13 Demoiselle Crane approaching Keechan from their roosting site. From minute spots far away, few minutes later, they reach overhead.
Demoiselle is a big bird, one can easily make out. It’s wonderful to see their streamlined body from down below…. The wing span seems about 4-6 feet! They are flying in typical ‘V’ formation. The flight style too is typical – Neck stretched straight forward, legs and feet extended straight backwards.
The Cranes land on a barren sandy hillock overlooking the BFH in west just about 150 meters away. The hillock is separated from the village and the BFH by the dry bed of a seasonal streamlet.
Now, there is endless stream of Crane waves arriving at Kheechan, one after the other, in ‘n’ numbers of birds 2, 5, 7, 3, 10, 4, 20,18…. I just wonder what decides the group of birds in each wave – Family? Friends? Clan? Random?
Horizon on the eastern side turns reddish and minutes later turns orangish. Soon, there are thousands of Cranes circling over Kheechan with BFH as centre. There is lot of noise as well – Croc, croc, croc…
The practice is that grain is spread out late in the evening for the birds to feed on in the morning. It’s amazing that in spite of the food already there, the birds are not greedy. My friend, Bhoj Raj, living on the other side of BFH joins me on the terrace. He tells me, ‘Demoiselle Cranes have some system which they follow regularly – Probably based on their preferred feeding time, ecological reasons and security assurance.’
There are hundreds of pigeon already busy in feeding. A pair of pea fowl is also around.
After a quarter hour or probably more of circling, it’s not random bird landing at the feeding ground. Bhoj Raj tells, ‘there is an old bird, probably a female, with limp in one leg, always lands first.’
Once the leader lands, it’s crane rain at the BFH. One after the other, not hundreds but thousands land and the Home is packed. In fact, no ground is visible. Every bird gets busy with feeding. There are few keeping guard, now and then.
It’s a sea of gray and black. Demoiselle’s body plumage is largely pale bluish gray. Later on, I look closely with a binocular. The head and neck are black, while the feathers of the lower neck are long and pointed and hang below the breast. Legs and toes are black. I notice, what make Demoiselle Crane conspicuous is the long, pure white feather plume stretching from behind the eyes to well beyond the head, and reddish- orange eyes! I can easily make out many young cranes from the pale ashy gray body and nearly white heads.
Fights are common in such tightly packed situation. I notice, these are not real fights. It’s mere signals of supremacy and it works. Probably, the order is known to one and all. The bullies grab the best spot with more grain.
The action at the Home runs for about 3 hours. As the tummy gets full, one by one, birds starts leaving and sit at the sand dune opposite, and laze around. On the other hand, there are several Cranes sitting just outside the fence, waiting for some room to be available inside the Home. There are many more coming in – Probably flying in from farther off roosting sites. The ritual of circling above the Home is performed and they wait outside or land in, if space is available.
By around 10 am, the Home is empty except some pigeon and peafowl around. Many of the cranes are lazing around or sunning themselves with wings spread out on the sand dune and other adjacent barren areas. Sewa Ram and I walk on this side of the dry stream. Amazing, the cranes are scattered for about one and a half km in the strip of about 100-200 meters – cranes, more cranes and still more cranes.
For me this is unique and extraordinary. For inhabitants of Kheechan, this is as usual – part of Kheechan.
Demoiselle Crane – Population & Migration
Demoiselle Crane is the second most abundant crane species. There are about 200,000 to 240,000 demoiselle estimated in the world. There are six main populations of Demoiselle Cranes occurring in over 47 countries throughout the world. The three eastern populations occurring in eastern Asia, Kazakhstan/Central Asia, and Kalmykia (between the Black and Caspian Seas) are abundant, numbering in the tens of thousands. There are also three remnant populations occurring near the Black Sea, and the Atlas plateau of northern Africa, and Turkey. However, all are in decline and the north Africa and Turkey populations are near extinction.
Demoiselle cranes have to take one of the toughest migrations in the world. In late August through September, they gather in flocks of up to 400 individuals and prepare for their flight to their winter range. During their migratory flight south, demoiselles reach altitudes of 16,000–26,000 feet (4,900–7,900 metres). Along their arduous journey they have to cross the Himalayas to get to their wintering grounds in India.