Once in a while, while driving trough the rural areas of Northern India, one might come across to a memorable sight; a Sarus Crane, the tallest flying bird in the world.
Once the Sarus was a common sight; in the 19th century, more than 100.000 birds soared over the northern plains. Since then, the numbers have been falling drastically, and today there are less than 10.000 birds left in India.
As is often the case, the loss of habitat is mostly to blame; the wetlands have been converted to agricultural use, under the increasing pressure from the human population growth. The Sarus has survived in the areas where traditional crops, rice during the summer, and wheat in wintertime, still prevail. Where sugarcane and soybean are the norm, the Sarus is no more.
In the past, the Sarus Crane also enjoyed wide popularity, even being considered a holy bird in some areas; at least, it was considered a bringer of good faith and fertility, not unlike the White Stork in Europe. This status has also somewhat diminished in recent times, as the need for farmland has increased.
The worldwide population has dwindled under 20.000 cranes, of which there are perhaps less than 10.000 breeding, adult birds left. Three distinct subspecies are recognized:
The north-indian Grus antigone ssp. antigone, photographed here, is the tallest flying bird;
a large adult male may approach 1,8 m (six feet) in height. The eastern ssp., G. antigone sharpii, mainly prevails in Vietnam and Cambodia; only around 1000 are left.
The australian ssp., Grus antigone gilliae, is 'only' the size of an european crane; perhaps 5000 birds are found.
The Sarus inhabits natural wetlands and rice paddies; they are omnivorous, but seem to prefer to wade on shallow water for food. One is most likely to find them foraging in rural areas; usually in pairs, as most Sarus Cranes mate for life.