Demoiselles in the Sky

Outdoors

Demoiselles in the Sky

Illustration: Juergen DSouza

O

n a cold January morning last year, while I was in the midst of an annual Rajasthan trip, my mind became preoccupied by Khichan, a sleepy village in the middle of the Thar desert. I was yet to visit this nondescript destination, but like many of my photographer and traveller friends, it had made its way to the top of my bucket list. As my train announced its arrival at Phalodi, an old caravan centre in Thar, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take a detour. Jaisalmer could wait. Khichan was barely six kilometres away, and it was time to take in what it had to offer.

Khichan

The migration route of the Demoiselle Cranes is also the longest and toughest among all birds

My first instinct was to take a long walk along the dusty road to the village, cover the expanse that lay between Khichan and me by foot. I took a few strides, but the unforgiving sun got the better of me. Hopping into a rusty auto rickshaw, I headed straight for the village — once home to rich traders, who at the turn of the last century emigrated to the metros. Since then, Khichan had grudgingly transformed into a hotspot for tourists who, like me, stop by during the winter months for an eyeful of the migrating Demoiselle cranes.

Every year toward the end of August, soon after the monsoons have retreated, grey birds dot the deep blue sky. The petite cranes announce their joyous arrival with their characteristic trumpeting calls, and sleepy Khichan springs to life.

Khichan

Demoiselle cranes are monogamous which means they essentially bond for life.

Demoiselle cranes, the world’s smallest cranes, escape the freezing winters of their breeding grounds in the Eurasian Steppes, and plains of Mongolia, and fly almost 5,000 kilometres to reach India in search of food and shelter. Apart from the distance, the mighty Himalayas that stand in their way to Khichan, make their migration one of the longest and most arduous among all birds.

At first glance, Khichan looked like any other village in Rajasthan, bone-dry, located amid vast tracts of agricultural plots. However, on closer examination, I became privy to some of its interesting secrets. Several havelis, built with local sandstone by wealthy merchants, were scattered across the village. The doors and windows of these havelis were adorned with exquisite patterns. I was enamoured by the old-world charm of these havelis, when a deafening sound snapped me out of my stupor.

The dance attains a climax when the cranes pick up blades of grass, throw them up in the air, and then stab at them using their beaks as they take flight.

I left the havelis behind and started walking in the direction where the sound was emanating from. A few of the village youth had gathered around, what I soon found out was, the entry point to the feeding ground of the cranes. They were manning it with utmost dedication. I made my way to an elevated ridge that the villagers had voluntarily built to protect the ground from strays and other predators. My sight was blocked by a wall, but the sound grew louder as I inched closer.

I eagerly climbed it and finally saw the birds. A surreal gathering of Demoiselle cranes. Some 20,000 of them, over three feet tall, flocked together on a barren piece of land with small, glistening ponds breaking the endless monotony of grey feathers.

Khichan

A fully grown crane is over three feet tall and when several of them fly together, they can even block the sun for a while.

It looked like one big happy family, but I remember reading that while the cranes stick together during migration, they pair up and nest on their own in their breeding grounds. Demoiselle cranes are monogamous, which means they essentially bond for life, a love that is reflected during their ballet-like mating dance. Wings half-spread, they take quick steps, walk around each other, and leap high in the air. The dance attains a climax when the cranes pick up blades of grass, throw them up in the air, and then stab at them using their beaks as they take flight.

Khichan, however, is not a witness to this dance of love, as the cranes mate only in their nesting grounds in Eurasia and Mongolia. They leave for India only after the eggs hatch and their offspring grow big enough to fly.

Khichan

In Khichan, the feeding ground of the cranes was essentially a barren piece of land surrounded by a couple of small ponds

Image Credit: Jitaditya Narzary

And the villagers of Khichan await the arrival of their winged friends all year. Feeding the birds has now become an annual ritual. But it was only after the 1970s that the cranes started flocking to Khichan for their winter getaway. Back in the day, Ratanlal Maloo, a local, would regularly feed pigeons, peacocks, and other birds in the village. One winter, he spotted a few dozen of the Demoiselle cranes. He began feeding them too, and year after year their numbers grew exponentially. Feeding hundreds and thousands of birds was daunting. But the villagers chipped in. It was the start of a beautiful friendship that has bloomed over the last forty years.

I’d almost begun to believe that the current trends of man-animal conflicts are irreversible. But as I watched the villagers feed the cranes, I was filled with optimism. It does indeed take a village to save the wild.

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