No one warned K.S. Gopi Sundar that sarus cranes attack. He was a novice when he waded through waist-deep water towards a floating nest, expecting the incubating adult to walk away. Instead, it rose to its full five-foot-plus height and spread its enormous grey wings. Its trumpeting call blasted his eardrums. This wasn’t what cranes were reported to do. He stood rooted as he gaped up at this towering bird when it swooped at his head, its dagger-shaped beak barely missing him. He dove into the water, unmindful that his field notebook, binoculars, and camera were getting ruined. Its piercing shriek sped up his retreat. Farmers, who had stopped work to watch, rebuked him, “What were you thinking! These birds can kill you.”
Sundar had discovered the peril of generalising that all cranes act the same. In many ways, sarus crane behaviour is the exception rather than the rule because the tallest flying birds in the world aren’t persecuted by people. Elsewhere, cranes harassed by humans are too timid to save their own skins.
The grey birds with bare red heads seem harmless as they strut, looking for insects and grain, through farmlands around Mainpuri, 100 kilometres east of Agra, Uttar Pradesh. As Sundar found out later, the farmers were not being dramatic. Over the past three to four decades, defensive sarus cranes had stabbed about 20 children. But the parents faulted their kids for provoking the birds.
Celebrated in epic sagas and revered for their long-term monogamous relationships, sarus cranes hold a special place in the residents’ hearts. Farmers don’t chase them away from their fields, instead, relying on them to maintain surveillance at night. If nilgai or stray cattle come to feast, the vigilant birds pipe up, waking the people and saving their crops.
Sundar not only underestimated the sarus but also the depth of villagers’ regard for them. He learned to approach nests to take measurements only when the less aggressive females were on incubation duty. After noting the figures, when he returned to his motorbike parked by the roadside, he often had to contend with men armed with sticks. They thought he was stealing eggs.
Geology, history, cropping cycles, cultural reverence, and the monsoon combine to make the Yamuna and Ganga basin ‘sarus crane central’. The largest population of this species lives in the most populous state of the country. “The entire landscape is a blanket of sarus territories,” and the birds don’t leave at any time, says Sundar. No other crane species is as territorial as the sarus.
Cranes in committed relationships throw their heads up in the air and trumpet together while the males fluff their wings. By analysing audio recordings, the researcher realised each ‘unison call’ is as unique as a fingerprint and can be used to identify pairs without catching and marking them.
The birds communicate subtly too. A small greyish skin patch on the crown makes the red-headed cranes seem bald. By controlling the flow of blood, they adjust the size of the spot at will. Since the bright colour catches the eye, they get the message across without getting physical or noisy, although what they say is still a mystery.
Sundar caught fledglings and slipped colour coded bands onto their pink legs for identification. Thirteen years later, one of those youngsters returned to an area adjoining the spot where he had been born. Bachelors kicked out by established pairs bide their time in marginal no crane’s land, waiting for a vacancy. In this case, the former owner flew into overhead electrical lines and perished, allowing the youngster to possess a piece of territory and start a family.
The banding exercise had an unintended consequence. The cranes around Mainpuri associated motorbikes with the trauma of their young being caught. For three years after the operation, they trumpeted in outrage at every passing motorcycle.
They generalised human behaviour.
Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.