The Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan

by Otto Pfister, from OBC Bulletin 24, December 1996.

Khichan, 150 km north of Jodhpur in the northern part of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, is still a small sleepy village off the main tourist track and follows a quiet pattern of life. At the turn of the last century several rich traders from the Jain community lived in Khichan. However, today most of them have migrated to metropolitan cities like Delhi, Madras, Mumbai or Calcutta, and for the future Khichan has developed tourism ambitions. It is planned to transform one of the most beautiful buildings into a guest house and the village has recently been recognised as a tourist spot by the Rajasthan Tourist Development Corporation.

Khichan was selected much earlier, however, by migrating Demoiselle Cranes passing their winter months in India. Every year towards the end of August, just after the monsoon rains have ceased, they fly in from their breeding grounds on the plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia. All of a sudden the sleepy village of Khichan is transformed into a noisy crowded place, as 'krok-krok' calls fill the air, and the sky is darkened by thousands of cranes. 'In earlier times only a few dozen 'Kuraj' (the local name for Demoiselle Crane) migrated to this village, until we decided to feed them in an organised but natural manner, since when their number has steadily increased year by year. Today there are about 6,000 birds', says Prakash Jain.

Since the cranes were often disturbed by dogs and passing villagers, a small feeding place (50 x 60 m) was set up at the edge of the village. However, today this area has become too crowded during feeding times and a new solution must be found. Further problems have ensued from new settlers encroaching upon previously open government land and building houses which now hamper the preferred flight-path of the birds. This has created tension in the village between those conservationists who want to assure the safety and peace of the cranes, and opposition politicians who see the new settlers as potential voters, and support their stand. The local authorities have already had some of the unauthorised constructions removed under police escort, but the opposition argue that the crane feeding site is too crowded anyway, and request that it be moved instead.

Despite all this, Ratan Lal, a volunteer, continues his early morning and afternoon activity, and throughout the high season (November February) provides up to five 'quintals' (500 kg) of grain per day for the birds. This is all paid for by monetary donations from local people and visitors, administered by Kuraj Sanrakshan Vikas Sansthan, a newly established society in Khichan for crane protection and care.

After the cranes complete their early morning feeding, they gather on the nearby sand dunes to preen a fascinating sight as the birds face the rising sun, their tie-like black chest feathers contrasting with the blue winter sky. A short while later they depart in different directions in small family flocks. Once in the air they immediately form a disciplined order led by the female, followed closely by up to two sub-adults and brought up by the male and continue calling. Their destination is a large area of barren land near Khichan where feeding continues on seeds found in the soil. The cranes are not usually disturbed by the passing camel carts and people, but if a passer-by ventures too close, a single alarm call causes the whole flock to take wing. Unfortunately visitors often find this spectacle amusing and intentionally disturb the birds.

In the middle of the day all the cranes assemble around the 'nadis' ponds dug near the village to collect rainwater for domestic and animal use. Here the birds drink, but seldom wade into the water, except for the occasional bird that takes a bath. Sporadically a couple underlines mutual affection in a short acrobatic dance display; only rarely does the odd bird lie down to roost. Communication continues, but at a reduced volume. Towards 3 pm, suddenly the entire flock takes wing, with a deafening noise, and abandons the ponds in a westerly direction.

The birds return to crowd into the feeding area, the later birds having to wait outside the fence until they find some free space. Ratan Lal does his best to satisfy all the hungry flock, distributing the day's fourth bag of grain. The feeding cranes approach him to within only a few metres and accompanying them are feral chickens 'Gallus gallus', Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus, House Sparrows, Passer domesticus, flocks of House, Corvus splendens, and Jungle Crows, C. macrorhynchos, and hundreds of Rock Doves, Columba livia, all participating in a free meal.

However, not all the people of Khichan agree with such a large, systematic feeding programme for the cranes. Opponents draw attention to the alarming increase in numbers of pigeons and crows around the village, the danger of disease affecting such a concentration of cranes, and they see more sense in distributing the grain to needy people than "just to birds". The supporters however defend the cause of care and protection, offering these migrant birds a safe place to spend their winter in India, as more and more of their traditional grounds are being destroyed by human interference. The latter viewpoint has gained the unhesitating support of the director of the International Crane Foundation, who recently visited Khichan. The hope is that the safe future of the cranes at Khichan is not put at risk by village politics.

Acknowledgements I am thankful to Prakash Jain for sharing his data with me.

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