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In photos | Dancing with the demoiselles in Khichan, Rajasthan

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The cranes migrate from as far as Mongolia to this welcome home in Khichan, Rajasthan

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For an adequately populated Rajasthan village, Khichan is unusually silent. Winged guests have arrived for breakfast, and nothing should disturb them: the peckish demoiselle cranes, which have migrated from as far as Mongolia, must eat their fill during the 90-minute feeding time.

From the 1970s, it has been ‘birds first’ for this village in Phalodi tehsil of Jodhpur district. What started as a trickle in the early decades has now swollen to some 25,000 birds that arrive as early as August, even before winter begins, and stay on till March.

When Ratanlal Maloo returned to his village from Odisha, his uncle asked him to feed the pigeons. Everyday, the family would carry sacks of grains to the feeding spot. The first to arrive were pigeons, sparrows and squirrels. Peacocks flew in occasionally. A dozen demoiselle cranes (Grus virgo) joined later; but after two or three winters, their numbers swelled.

Now, every morning, the cranes fly into specially created 60x100m rectangular enclosures for breakfast. They come from different directions in small flocks, in disciplined order, led by the female, followed closely by two young ones, with the male forming the rearguard.

After they feed, the birds spend hours in four waterbodies nearby. At night, they roost in the Ranur Baap salt pans, 35 km away.

As the cranes grew in number, they became targets for predatory dogs. The villagers set up a fenced bird-feeding home with a granary. Many traders supported the initiative, supplying grains.

Sewa Ram Mali and his family have been monitoring the behaviour of the cranes for over 10 years, even keeping a logbook on their numbers, arrival time, and health.

Mali has even gone to court with local support to get a power line removed from the flight path of the cranes; another line was laid underground. Yes, for Khichan, it’s birds first indeed.

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