Encounter: The Demoiselles of Khichan – Part I

As I enter the village children greet me. They are a cheerful lot, waving and smiling at the visitor with a camera. I notice that they are playing with a dead snake and want me to see it up close. For an armchair explorer like me, fed on a regular dose of National Geographic specials, the relation between the desert and deadly snakes needs no explaining. And I am wearing sandals.

The kids are aware of the purpose of my visit. They point me to the village pond where the cranes are roosting. Khichan has three ponds on its northern edge – two twin adjacent ones and a smaller, secluded one a few hundred metres to the north. As I climb the ridge towards the pond, a voice calls out from behind me.

To aap koorja aaye hain?” (So you have come to see the cranes?)

Kumar is a part-time potter and a hotelier-in-the-making (he wants to open a small hotel in Khichan for the crane-besotted). However, for now he has chosen to be my guide and companion – a role into which he slips easily and which he plays with flair for the rest of the evening.

As we climb the ridge that makes up the edge of the shallow village pond, about two thousand roosting Demoiselle Cranes come into view. The place is alive with their calls. Demure, with silver-grey bodies, glistening black necks and white plumes extending backwards from their sparkling red eyes, the cranes are magnificent to behold. Some accounts maintain that the crane was christened by Mary Antoinette, the queen of France better known for her unplanned rendezvous with the guillotine.

Demoiselle Cranes (Anthropoides virgo) inhabit dry grasslands or poor-vegetation lands such as savannah, steppes and semi-deserts. They are increasingly adapting to agricultural fields and are usually found within reach of water sources (which, like other cranes, they use for roosting). Khichan is on the edge of the desert with sparse cultivation and a few shallow ponds – ideal Demoiselle habitat.

As we observe the cranes from the bund, Kumar volunteers information on the purpose of their visit. “Yeh yahan par honeymoon manane aayi hain,” he tells me with a smile and a wink. “They are here to celebrate their honeymoon.”

After the American Sandhill Crane, the Demoiselle Crane is the most abundant of the world’s cranes, with a population estimated at about 240,000. There are no known subspecies and the Demoiselle has six main populations of which the Eastern Asia, Kazakhstan/Central Asia, and Kalmykia are abundant. Small populations are found in Turkey, North Africa and the Black Sea. The Demoiselle has been recorded from more than 40 countries in the world.

In India, Demoiselle Cranes fly in from countries of the former USSR (the area around the Caspian and Black Seas) and Mongolia, flying over the Himalayas at almost 24,000 feet. They are regular winter visitors to parts of northern and central India. Large flocks can be seen in parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra (flocks have been observed near Pune) and North Karnataka (a large population regularly winters near the Hidkal Dam near Belgaum). More recently, they have been observed in Ladakh.

The crane winters in India but does not breed here (unlike the Black-necked Cranes). Come March, they will begin their long flight home, reaching Eastern Europe or the central Asian and Mongolian steppes in the beginning of spring, and start the breeding cycle. The locals inform me that the cranes begin the return migration on the full moon night of March and before setting off, circle the village (which they otherwise never enter), seemingly offering thanks and a promise of return.

Peter Matthiessen documents similar behavior in the Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) in Bhutan: “According to tradition, the birds will return to Phobjika valley in late December, arriving at midday when the sun is highest. Invariably, say the villagers, they circle three times over Gantey Gompa, crying out to the lama for his blessing before gliding slowly down into the dark-walled valley.”

Scientists speculate that the slow circling allows the cranes a gradual ascent and hence has more to do with flight dynamics than gratitude. But in the East, where reality has been traditionally perceived in subjective terms and explanations are multi-hued, the former explanation makes as much sense as the latter, and both co-exist without challenge to their veracity.

I spend some time with Kumar watching the cranes feeding and preening. A few are flying about the pond but the overall impression is one of peace from the near-absence of predators. They are lined up along the circumference of the pond and completely cover a small island within it. Some have settled a distance away from the pond on the gravel. A camel cart is parked nearby (it seems to be a permanent fixture at Khichan – I have seen it in earlier photographs of the place) and the owner is filling it up with mud dug up from the pond. The actual digging is performed by women and girls dressed in the blazing red and orange hues commonly seen in Rajasthan.

The cranes appear oblivious to their presence. Occasionally a tourist vehicle arrives within a hundred yards of the pond causing mild commotion within the ranks. Things settle down quickly once the vehicle leaves. Kumar tell me that Khichan witnesses a lot of tourist traffic due to the cranes but few visitors spend more than an hour in the village. Other than the cranes the village boasts some old havelis – a signboard on the road proudly points them out.

To be continued…

Text and photographs by Sahastrarashmi

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