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It is a story often told. Almost every newspaper or TV station worth its salt has covered it. Even the BBC has been here. So to make it short, the local community in the village of Khichan started providing feed to a small flock of migrating demoiselle cranes. The small flock brought in a bigger one, the year later. And they in turn brought in an even bigger one. Decades later, this sleepy little village, halfway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan is a global tourist attraction. For every year, between September and March – thousands of of these winged visitors find their way here, from their breeding grounds in Central Asia and Mongolia.

The Demoiselle Crane (Anthropoides virgo) is the smallest among the gruiformes or cranes as they are commonly known. Their petite appearance is said to have given them their name. In India they are known as kuraj or kuranja, and are considered sacred by Jains, Hindus and Sikhs among other religions.

I had of course read a lot about Khichan, and how its denizens had made it their life’s mission to serve and protect these birds. Over the years, many plans to visit Khichan had been quietly buried before hatching. It took a spur of the moment decision to pack bags and camera gear, and set off on the 600 km drive to winter home of the cranes. We stayed with Sewa Ram Mali, a man who has dedicated his whole life in the service of these birds. His humble home, abuts the feeding ground set up by the locals, and provides the best vantage point to observe them. And he told us to expect magic in the morning.

At first light, the demoiselle cranes leave their roosting grounds in the open scrub to the north of the village, and start making their way to the feeding grounds.
To begin with the flocks are small. Groups of 15-20 cranes at best. Perhaps they have been taught the story of the early bird….
Slowly, the flocks get bigger. They first make their way towards the fields surrounding the village and gather in number.
And gather in numbers they do. Pretty soon, the morning sky is nearly blotted out by the circling cranes as they flow low and start descending into the grounds where locals have laid out grain for their winged guests.
As the sun rises, the first set of birds get going with their breakfast. This compound is funded and managed by an NGO set up by the villagers to provide feed for the birds.
The demoiselle cranes are at best 90-100 cm tall. Males are slightly larger than females, with juveniles having a duller plumage.
They are also the only cranes to have a fully feathered head which lacks the red skin patch seen on others in their species. They also feature elongated black plumage on their neck, which hangs down to the breast.
Their most striking feature, which in my view accentuates their beauty are their jewel red eyes and the distinct tufts which extend beyond the upper nape.
In flight, demoiselles like all cranes have their neck and head straight forward, and feet tucked in line behind them.
As the morning wears on, more cranes arrive. Given the small size of the feeding ground, a shift system is necessary.
And once they hit the ground, the feeding begins in full earnest. Barely a head is up among a sea of grey feathers. The locals estimate the number of visiting birds by measuring the amount of grain consumed. According to them, an average bird consumes about 250 gms of feed each day.
The highest number of birds visiting in one season has been estimated at nearly 40,000. The average is closer to 27,000 though. When we visited in February, the first batch had begun the long journey home, leaving roughly 20,000 or so in and around the village.
Demoiselles have one of the toughest migrations among any bird or animal. Their breeding grounds are the wide steppes and open country of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Mongolia. From there, they escape the harsh winter by flying over the Himalayas at altitudes ranging from 5000-8000m, to reach their wintering grounds across India.
The demoiselle cranes are classified under ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List, which states that their numbers are increasing. Having said that, their habitats are under pressure from human expansion. There is already debate in Khichan on whether this artificial feeding is modifying the birds’ natural behaviour. Whether this interaction with humans benefits the larger species, remains to be seen.
Having eaten their bellies’ full – the cranes retire around two ponds to the north of the village. Local authorities have fenced the ponds to protect them from feral dogs and other predators. Viewing platforms have also been set up to encourage tourism.
Life is idyllic for the birds here. Free access to food and water and protection from predation has made it a favourite wintering site. The average trend shows an upward tick in numbers arriving here each year.
Tourists come from far and wide to see these birds., and pose for the mandatory social media post. The birds’ cultural and religious and significance has given them an elite status. Does this come at a cost?
Sewa Ram Mali though has dedicated his life caring for these birds. He runs a small outfit, supported by villagers and volunteers that spots any injured or sick bird. He is trained and provides them with first aid, and now has an ambulance to take any serious cases to proper veterinary facilities. His efforts have been recognized all over the world and he has won several awards for his selfless work.
Sewa Ram and the residents of Khichan have ensured that blue skies of Rajasthan are always open for these beauties. One hopes that lessons can be taken to ensure peaceful coexistence with other species as well. The human race needs to find this balance. Time though is running out.
As the sun dips below the horizon, the demoiselles settle down for the night among the shrubbery. Soon, it will time for the long flight back home. Khichan ensures they are fed and fit for it.

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2 thoughts on “The Winged Guests”

    1. Thank you! It’s an incredible place and you must visit it once. Plan a trip to Jodhpur / Jaisalmer for the next family reunion 🙂

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