Long-necked and long-legged, cranes are tall, flying birds that belong to the Gruidae family. Seen across the world's wetlands and grasslands, they are only absent from Antarctica and curiously, South America. Similar to herons in appearance, cranes tend to be larger and have a partly naked head. During flight, unlike herons, cranes keep their necks stretched out in front with their stilt-like legs trailing behind. Many of the crane species are migratory, their breeding and wintering grounds often separated by thousands of kilometres. Of the 15 crane species, India is home to two resident species and wintering populations of three more.
Sadly, 11 of the 15 extant crane species are at the risk of extinction, with habitat loss and degradation recognised as the primary threats for these avians. The Siberian Crane, which is highly dependent on wetlands, is the most threatened crane species on the planet. The changing hydrology along their narrow migration corridor from breeding grounds in Russia to China has seen them disappear from former strongholds such as India. At the same time, the uplifting tale of the Demoiselle Cranes finding sanctuary in the Khichan village in Rajasthan provides hope.
Find out all you need to know about the resident and migratory crane species seen in India.
Sarus Crane (Grus antigone)
IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable
The tallest flying birds in the world, Sarus Cranes are easily identified by their grey plumage and red head and neck regions. Sarus Cranes weigh between 6.8-7.8kg. The bird can often be seen in pairs or small flocks. Three population groups of the species are spread across India, Southeast Asia and Australia. In India, their preferred habitats are marshlands, wet and dry grasslands, wetlands and agricultural fields. While breeding is year-round, peak breeding is observed between July and October. Sarus Cranes mate for life and their loyal love is such that it is part of Rajput folklore and mythology. They are also renowned for their fantastic courtship displays, where the birds engage in an intricate dance that involves the flapping of their large wings and the bowing, stretching and bobbing of their elegant long necks while they circle each other.
Sarus Cranes were once commonly seen in paddy fields in the northern and central parts of the country. However, the degradation of wetlands, habitat modification due to developmental activities and pesticide poisoning are some of the significant threats which have drastically reduced their populations in the country. The mechanisation of agriculture and predation of eggs and chicks by other species also adds to the list of threats. Despite being well-adapted to living near human-occupied regions, the cranes are in dire need of targeted conservation measures.
Common Crane (Grus grus)
IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern
Common Cranes are medium-sized cranes that weigh between 3-6kg. Largely grey in colour, they have a distinct red crown and a white line running along the neck region. Common Cranes are migratory birds and are widely distributed across countries. They make their way to the wintering grounds in southern Europe, parts of Africa, northern India and Pakistan in early September. And, in the month of March, they return to their breeding grounds across northern Europe and the Palearctic regions. Non-breeding and wintering habitats include swamps, paddy fields and floodlands. They are usually seen in large flocks. Although designated as Least Concern from a conservation perspective, habitat modification and destruction have impacted populations in certain parts of its range. The construction of dams and other ecosystem modifications are also causes for concern.
Siberian Crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus)
IUCN Red List Status: Critically Endangered
Crane species that migrate the most, Siberian Cranes are primarily white in colour with pinkish-white legs and red markings on their face and forehead. Their black wingtips are prominent during flight. The Siberian Crane has two regional population groups. The eastern population breeds in northeastern Siberia and migrates 5,000km from the Yakutian tundra of Russia across highly developed eastern China to winter at Poyang Lake in the mid Yangtze River Basin. The western/central population winters along the Caspian Sea in Iran and breeds in the southern parts of the Ob River in Russia. According to recent reports, a single individual called Omid or Hope now represents the western/central population. Previously, birds of this population used to winter in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. They were last sighted in the region back in 2001! Marshes, bogs and other wetlands along their migration routes are critical for their activities like feeding, nesting and roosting. The construction of dams, diversion of water for agriculture and hunting along these narrow corridors are significant threats to this critically endangered species.
Demoiselle Crane (Anthropoides virgo)
IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern
Smallest among all crane species, Demoiselle Cranes weigh only between 2-3kg and can be identified by their grey plumage and long black necks. Like Siberian Cranes, their black wingtips are prominent when in flight. Demoiselle Cranes have a wide geographic distribution. Their breeding grounds extend from Central Asia to Mongolia, and their wintering grounds lie in the western parts of India. Their migration is arduous as large flocks of tens of thousands of birds cross the Himalayas to reach their wintering grounds. In parts of western India, villagers wait for their arrival and even welcome the long-distance flyers with grains. The Khichan village in Rajasthan is renowned for this practice. In breeding and wintering grounds, Demoiselle Cranes prefer grasslands near water bodies. They are also seen in sparsely vegetated regions and deserts that are near water bodies. Although designated as Least Concern, habitat loss and modification for agricultural purposes are significant threats to the species.
Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis)
IUCN Red List Status: Near Threatened
Black-necked Cranes are medium-sized cranes that can be distinguished from similar-looking Common Cranes by the dropping of black feathers above the tail region. In Common Cranes, the feathers are grey in colour. Black-necked Cranes weigh about 5-6kg and are mainly found in India, China and Bhutan. The bird breeds in the high-altitude wetlands in the Tibetan plateau and winters in low-altitude areas. While Ladakh is the main breeding ground for the species in India, a small population also breeds in the Zemithang and Sangti valleys of Arunachal Pradesh. Habitat loss and modification are significant threats to this crane species. It is believed that the number of breeding pairs in the country is less than 20, making it critical to protect the high-altitude wetlands in their range. Black-necked Cranes feed in the fields around these wetlands and increasing grazing pressures in the region is impacting their feeding habits. Another significant threat is the destruction of eggs and chicks by free-ranging dogs.