Sarus Crane - The World's Tallest Flying Bird
©2006 Harri Vainola
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.

The name Sarus comes from a Sanskrit word meaning courtship; witnessing the dance of these magnificent birds is an unforgettable experience. I was fortunate enough to witness their display during my trip to India; there are some photographs to be seen in the gallery.
I also met a group of several pairs, accompanied by a baby crane.
The parents made a good effort of hiding the junior in the tall grass, with some help from the other birds in the group; as a farmer approached the area, all the adult birds placed themselves between the potential threat and the little one, giving him time to retire further away.
The brown down on the juvenile's head will not be replaced by adult feathers; the conspicuous red and white areas on the head of the adult Sarus are bare skin.  
It should be mentioned, that I did not even made an effort to follow those birds, or to find their nestsites; they have enough problems already, without me disturbing them.

Remarkably enough, the Sarus juveniles are able to follow their parents on foot from the day they are hatched. The nests are built on the ground, and are vigorously defended by the male bird; it is said, that the Sarus is capable of driving away cattle, that venture too close to their nest.

There is little, however, that even the mighty Sarus can do against the loss of their habitat. 
The species is protected in most countries, but as they are forced to live on private rice paddies, the conservation efforts are even more problematic than normally; the benefits of wildlife conservation tend not to be high on a struggling farmer's agenda.
The faith of the Sarus Crane is uncertain, at best; it is certain, though, that India would be lesser place, without the company of the Great Crane.

Sarus Cranes
Sarus Cranes
Sarus Crane