The crane that came back home
One day in November 2000, K.S. Gopi Sundar, a birder and conservationist, ringed a month-old Sarus chick.
In December 2014, Sundar, now programme director for SarusScape at the International Crane Foundation, saw the bird again—in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, one of the best places to see the tallest flying bird in the world.
The homecoming of the bird is a rare occurrence—and we will come to the why in a bit—and should bode well for the future of the species, although that may not be the case here.
Sarus cranes (Grus Antigone, after a character in Greek mythology, Antigone of Troy who was changed into a stork by Hera; yes, storks are different from cranes, but this is mythology, not science) are considered holy in India. They can be found in fields adjoining rivers and canals (the ones abutting the Ganga and the Yamuna are their primary home), although they move around a lot.
In 2000 and 2001, “with the help of Wildlife Institute of India and the Uttar Pradesh forest department, 48 Sarus cranes were banded in Etawah and Mainpuri”, recalls Sundar.
Banding, or bird ringing, is a method where a small number-coded ring is attached to the leg of the bird. This enables scientists to identify the bird at a later date and gather data on its lifespan, migration behaviour and habitat.
Among other things, that exercise helped prove that “breeding pairs in the area were always territorial, establishing an unknown fact on Sarus ecology”.
One of the birds Sundar banded was tagged “o.b/b”.
Once it grew, both it and its sibling were chased out of the territory by the parents (which is what usually happens in the case of Sarus cranes, which gives an entirely new meaning to the term empty nesters).
At the start of every breeding season, Sarus parents nudge out their year-old chicks to make room for the newborns. These young chicks then form flocks and stay in large wetlands—a sort of compulsory nursery. The young flocks form roughly half of the Sarus population in south-western and central Uttar Pradesh.
Now o.b/b is back, just 500 metres from where he—for it is a he—was born, and in the same field, although the surroundings have changed some.
There are many more electricity lines and poles as well as mobile towers; the pattern of rainfall has altered; and there is a buzz from the modern machinery that farmers use.
But the bird seems to have settled in just fine.
“Now the Sarus o.b/b’s home is a reed wetland patch suitable for nesting, a few old mango trees and farmed land surrounding it. The bird has a partner with whom he has paired and is calmly feeding on waste grain in the fields,” says Sundar.
The resighting of o.b/b is the first confirmed report of a Sarus crane flying back to its place of birth and carving out a territory of its own. Sarus o.b/b’s sibling, which was also banded, has not been sighted.
Tracing the return of o.b/b to its birthplace is a remarkable accomplishment, but Sundar is not sure it means all is well with the birds.
Central and south-western Uttar Pradesh has the world’s highest density for a single crane species (there are 15 crane species in the world).
“But there is an attrition rate of 1% annually in the Sarus population of Etawah and if the current rate of development continues, the Sarus will go extinct locally in the next 50 years,” says Sundar.
The Supreme Court has banned procurement of agricultural land in some of the districts in the state, which may allow the birds to breed, but rampant and unplanned development will affect the population growth.
Wetlands account for less than 1% of Uttar Pradesh, but they are common-use lands and the first to go under development. “So we are pretty stressed in terms of well-watered areas. Sarus cranes pair for life and are not migratory. They don’t move around from one place to another. Removed from the landscape, they might be displaced permanently,” says Sundar.
For instance, Mainpuri is rapidly urbanizing. Prime agricultural land, wetlands and grassland are being used for building roads, flyovers, housing and other urban infrastructure.
The new Agra-Lucknow highway is to come up just a couple of kilometres from where o.b/b has set up home.