Cranes have long been revered by human civilisations for their grace and beauty. The leggy, water-loving birds are intertwined with myths from as far away as North America, and as close by as Ladakh. In Roman stories, the dance of the cranes — part of their elaborate courting ritual — is seen as a celebration of love and joy. Cranes mate for life, or until the death of one partner.
In China, the movements of cranes have inspired timeless kung fu moves, that are practiced even today. (Remember Master Crane from Kung Fu Panda?) Japanese culture considers the crane a holy creature, alongside the dragon and tortoise, symbolic of happiness and eternal youth. The crane finds expression in many styles of origami, and it is said that one who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the bird.
The black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis) is no different. The only alpine species of crane in the world, black-necked cranes are found in the higher altitudes of China, India, and Bhutan, and are celebrated in each of these cultures. Their status has been declared Vulnerable by the IUCN.
In the Changthang Plateau of Ladakh, where some black-necked cranes come for breeding in summer months, the birds are considered symbols of good luck. In the colder winter time, birds fly to Bhutan and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, where they have inspired songs and festivals. Tibetan Buddhism considers the black-necked crane an embodiment of the Sixth Dalai Lama.
One of the reasons this species is so venerated is because of its spectacular rituals. The black-necked cranes engage in wonderful courting displays involving song and dance before breeding season. Considering adult birds are over a metre tall, it is quite a sight to witness.
The sense of awe they evoke may be magnified by their migratory nature. Black-necked cranes travel annually between their breeding habitat, and non-breeding (or wintering) habitat, spending around six months in each location.
Packs of free-ranging dogs are a particular concern for these birds, and numerous other species in Ladakh. To keep their progeny safe, one parent is always present at the nest after the eggs are laid.
Practice is crucial, for by October the young ones must migrate with the parents to their wintering grounds. “When we see the birds flying high in the sky, we know that they will be leaving soon,” says Dr Pankaj.
Parents continue to nurture the young during this time, aiding them on foraging trips, and teaching them how to defend themselves against predators.