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Sarus Crane



Kingdom: Animalia         Phylum: Chordata         Class: Aves (Birds)         Order: Gruiformes         Family: Gruidae

Sarus Crane
Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) - image © Rajiv Lather

Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) is a widespread but declining resident in north and central India.   Size: 155 cm

Identification: Sarus Crane is the only resident breeding crane in India and is the worldís tallest flying bird. This Crane is a long-legged, long-necked grey bird with a naked red head. Juveniles have a brown appearance overall, younger sub-adults (> 1 year of age) have a brown head, grey body marked with grey, and older sub-adults (1-2 years of age) resemble adults except for markedly more black on the naked red head and upper neck. Sexes are alike, the female being slightly smaller. They can be identified reliably during the unison call when males open their wings and drop their primaries while females keep their wings closed. Three subspecies used to be recognized, distinguished mainly by morphological differences; but recent genetic analyses showed that the individual subspecies cannot be distinguished using individual genotypes.

The Indian Sarus Crane G. antigone antigone is taller than the eastern population G. antigone sharpii and the Australian G. antigone gilli. G. a. antigone has a white collar and white tertials. G. a. sharpii and G. a. gilli are a uniform slightly darker grey. The dividing point between the ranges of G. a. antigone and G. a. sharpii falls in Eastern India and Myanmar. G. a. gilli occurs exclusively in Australia, differentiated on its smaller size, larger, darker ear patches, and more extensively feathered throat.

Food: The diet includes frogs, reptiles, eggs of birds, eggs of freshwater turtles, a variety of invertebrates including butterflies, dragonflies and grasshoppers, tubers of aquatic plants, cereals, potatoes, peas, and fruits of Capparis.

Call: The unison call made by paired adults is the most well-known call and is a loud far-reaching trumpeting. In addition, a number of other calls have been recorded in adults including hissing, shrill korrrs, and throaty hrrrrs. Chicks, juveniles and sub-adults have a low but clear peep that is repeated at short intervals while begging and communicating with the adults and siblings.

World Distribution: The total of all three populations (earlier subspecies) is estimated to be about 15,000. The Indian population, G. antigone antigone (c 10,000) is common in north and central India. The Eastern population, G. antigone sharpii (c 1000) has been decimated throughout its historic range in southeast Asia except for one known population surviving in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. The Australian population G. antigone gilli (c 4000) is limited to northeastern Australia. A distinct population G. antigone luzonica (now presumed extinct), formerly occurred in the Philippines.

Distribution in India: Range of Sarus Crane includes the plains of northern, northwestern, and western India and the western half of Nepalís Tarai lowlands. Sarus Cranes are most common in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Haryana; they are less common in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The population in Nepal is small (c 200-500) and apparently declining. The current distribution of the Indian Sarus Crane is similar to its historic range except for their disappearance from the south (with the sole exception of one bird from Andhra Pradesh seen in 2005), but local abundances in most areas have declined. Sarus Cranes formerly occurred across the subcontinent, from the province of Sindh in Pakistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east, throughout the Gangetic plain, and in the arid and semi-arid regions of the Deccan Plateau of south-central India. Eastern Sarus Cranes have occasionally been reported during the breeding season in northern Myanmar, and a few individuals appear at the beginning of the monsoon season in the eastern Indian states of Tripura and Manipur.

Habitat: Although Sarus Cranes are non-migratory, populations move on a seasonal basis in response to monsoons and droughts. Indian Sarus Cranes are more sedentary than Eastern and Australian Sarus Cranes, undertaking extended movement only during times of severe drought. The Indian Sarus Crane have adapted to the high growth of human population and they are able to use even small wetlands if they are not heavily disturbed. Breeding pairs and families with pre-fledged chicks are typically dispersed among scattered natural and artificial wetlands. Adult pairs will use drier habitats such as cultivated and fallow fields, and degraded (saline and water-logged) lands. Eastern Sarus Cranes are less tolerant of people and are dependent on natural wetlands in both the wet and dry seasons. Australian Sarus Cranes nest in open wetlands during wet season and feed in upland agricultural fields and grasslands at other times of the year.

Breeding: Sarus Cranes in India typically breed during the monsoon (July to October) with few pairs breeding outside this period in response to loss of chicks and formation of adequate wetland habitat. They move locally amidst a wide variety of habitat types depending on food availability and other seasonal factors. Their optimal habitat includes a combination of herb-dominated marshes, ponds, and fallow lands, and also use cultivated lands that have wet crops like rice paddies alongside a well-developed irrigation system. Breeding pairs use larger wetlands where they are available, but are typically scattered across the landscape, nesting in fields, along canals and irrigation ditches, beside village ponds, and in shallow marshes, rice paddies, and reed beds. In areas that have perennial water supply due to irrigation canals, breeding pairs defend permanent territories. In Etawah and Mainpuri, the territory sizes varied from 15-50 ha and was limited by the amount of perennial wetlands within the territory of each breeding pair.

Nests consist of wetland vegetation and other available materials, and are made entirely of rice stalks when pairs nest in crop fields. Few nests are known from maize fields but other crop types are not useful as nesting habitat. Usually two eggs are laid, few clutches of three eggs are known, and one clutch of four eggs has been recorded. Pairs that have perennial wetlands in their territories have heavier eggs and nest earlier than other pairs. One pair in Gujarat was observed in 2005 to cover eggs with vegetation when the nest is approached by humans. Concealing eggs in this manner is a very rare occurrence in Cranes and not known in any Crane species anywhere else in the world. In the Indian population, incubation takes 27-35 days (averaging 31 days) and chicks fledge at 55-65 days. Pairs typically raise one chick though pairs with two chicks are not uncommon, and pairs with three chicks are very rare. Families with pre-fledged chicks prefer to use wetlands, but most pairs do not have territories with wetlands in them. Sarus Cranes in south-east Asia also breed during the rainy season (May-October), during which time they are isolated and territorial. Their breeding areas are largely unknown, and breeding habitat requirements poorly understood.
 

Status: The species is classified as Endangered under the revised IUCN Red List Categories.

Threat: Loss and degradation of wetlands due to agricultural expansion, ill-planned development, river basin development, pollution, electricity wires, egg removal by humans, predation of eggs by a growing crow population, predation of pre-fledged chicks by feral dogs, hunting, capture for the pet trade, and heavy use of pesticides are the most significant threats to the species, especially in India and southeast Asia. Many wetlands in these countries have also been drained in efforts to control mosquito populations. In India, wetlands are still classified as wastelands reducing the chances of large-scale protection of these habitats. Wetland conservation is restricted to very large water bodies that are invariably deep to favour congregations of wintering water bodies, and there is no mechanism to preserve shallow small and medium-sized seasonal wetlands that are most important to breeding Crane pairs and non-breeding Sarus Cranes. In many areas, high human population pressures compound these threats by increasing the level of disturbance. Local traditions and religious beliefs have protected the species in many parts of its range, especially northern India, Nepalís western Tarai, and Vietnam.

Protected Areas: Sarus Crane habitat is meagerly protected within reserves. In India, most Sarus Cranes are found scattered throughout private and village lands, but they do occur in many protected areas, including Madhav National Park, Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, National Chambal Sanctuary, and the Karera Bustard Sanctuary. In Haryana, the Sultanpur National Park and the Bhindawas Bird Sanctuary are the only known stable areas for breeding Sarus Cranes in the state and have one breeding pair each. At the end of 1994, ICF signed an agreement with the Lumbini Development Trust in Nepal to lease 120 ha of land at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, to establish the Lumbini Crane Sanctuary and to protect Nepalís remnant population of Sarus Cranes.


Note: The above article has been updated with the help of Sh. K. S. Gopi Sundar, Research Associate, International Crane Foundation and Principal Coordinator, Indian Cranes and Wetlands Working Group (A program of the Wildlife Protection Society of India and affiliated to the International Crane Foundation). Email: gopi@savingcranes.org.

 

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