Graceful, faithful, grey giants – on its way to extinction
An iconic species from the wetlands of India, the elegant Sarus Crane is not just the world’s tallest flying bird—it is also the only non-migratory crane that resides and breeds exclusively in the country. Once an unmistakable sight across northwest India, this graceful, long-legged beauty has seen its historic range rapidly decline, due to changes in land use and developmental activities.
The tall and graceful Sarus Cranes (Grus antigone) have an overall dull grey colour in most of the body feathers, except for the contrasting black primary feathers which are seen during flight. Long legs, useful for wading in marshy wetlands, are pink to pale red in colour. But the most striking feature of the crane is the bare, red-coloured head. This red usually turns to a bright crimson during the breeding season.
Young cranes are brown in colour with a much shorter beak. As the birds grow older, they start getting the grey plumes, with brown traces on them. The head is covered with deep buff feathers. In older but immature birds which have lost the feathers on the head, the red is not as deep as in adults.
On the menu
Sarus Cranes feed in shallow waters, using their long beaks to probe into the water and mud. These cranes are omnivorous and feed on a wide variety of plants and aquatic animals. Plant material consumed includes tubers and corns of aquatic plants, grass shoots and seeds, and even grains from cultivated crops. The cranes will also catch insects, fish, frogs, crustaceans and occasionally larger prey like water snakes. Very rarely have they been known to consume eggs from bird and turtle nests.
A breeding pair of Sarus Cranes establishes a territory in marshy areas and announces this by emitting loud trumpeting calls and dancing, usually in unison. This ‘dancing’ is also used to re-establish bonds by a pair at the onset of the breeding season, generally during the start of the monsoons.
Nests are built in marshy areas in the form of a giant platform made from vegetation and can be up to two metres in diameter. The height of the nest varies depending on the level of water in the marshes but is usually a metre tall. Clutch normally consists of one or two eggs. Although very rarely, records of three or four eggs are also there. Chicks grow quickly and are able to feed independently by following their parents within a few days of being born.
Standing at a height of 1.8 metres, the Sarus Crane is the tallest flying bird in the world.
Sarus Cranes mate for life. The bond between a mating pair is so strong that if one partner dies, the second known to trumpet its mourning call and eventually starve to death. But ‘divorces’ are also known to occur occasionally when a mating pair separates to find new partners.
The name Sarus is derived from the Hindi name of the bird ‘Saras’, which in turn was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘sarasa’, meaning ‘lake bird’. British soldiers corrupted the name to ‘serious’ or ‘cyrus’ when they mentioned it in their hunting logs. The species name antigone is the name of the daughter of Oedipus, a mythical king from Greece, who hanged herself. This may be in reference to the bare skin on the head and the neck.
It is believed that the legendary poet Valmiki cursed a hunter for killing a Sarus Crane in a courting pair, and was then inspired to write the celebrated ‘Ramayana’.
Mughal emperor Jahangir, noted for his love of nature, is known to have made observations on the biology of the Sarus Crane around the year 1607. He noted that the species laid two eggs, with an interval of 48 hours between them, and that the incubation period was 34 days.
The Sarus Crane was in close contention with the Indian Peafowl to become the national bird of India. Uttar Pradesh, the state which holds the largest population of the crane in the country, has this species as its State Bird.
India’s first multi-purpose civilian aircraft—a 14-seater propeller vehicle—designed by the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), was named ‘Saras’ after the crane.
A home that was
Sarus Cranes were once widely distributed in the northern half of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the northern part of Australia. While most species of cranes are migratory, the Sarus Crane is largely non-migratory, though non-breeding individuals are known to move locally in search of food. On account of the large-scale destruction of wetlands throughout their range, Sarus Cranes have become highly sporadic in their distribution, more so in South-east Asia.
The biggest threat to Sarus Cranes currently is the rampant decimation of wetlands. It is estimated that the worldwide population of Sarus Cranes has reduced by a staggering 95% since 1850. Eggs and young chicks are preyed upon by several predators including jackals, foxes and raptors like Brahminy Kites. Migrant labourers in North India have also been known to steal eggs for consumption. Hunting, although common during the British rule in India, is no longer practised. As a result of the rapid population decline, which is projected to continue bearing in mind the ongoing wetland destruction, the Sarus Crane is classified as a Vulnerable species by the IUCN. It is also listed in Appendix II of CITES and in Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species or the Bonn Convention. Throughout its range, several educational and conservational efforts are being carried out to raise awareness about and to protect the species. But only a dedicated preservation of its favoured wetland habitat and changing our current land use practices can ensure the continued conservation of this spirited and graceful bird.
Cover Photo Credit: Chotu Khan
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