Adult demoiselle cranes (Grus virgo) weigh between two and three kilos, making them the smallest members of the crane family. And yet, these delicate birds, with their ash-grey feathers and regal eye plumes, are among the fiercest flyers of the avian kingdom. Every year, thousands of demoiselle cranes travel from breeding grounds in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Eastern China, to warmer parts of the planet, such as Iran, India, and sub-Saharan Africa where they spend the winter months. Studies estimate the distance they cover during migration is upwards of 5,000 kilometres.
Visitors to India arrive around September, flocking largely to the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat and the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, where they linger until March. Enthusiastic birdwatchers know this well and make a beeline for one place in particular: the small town of Kheechan (Khichan) in Rajasthan, three hours from Jodhpur city by road.
Kheechan is characterised by squat, brick-and-mortar structures, scrubby vegetation, and colourful homes dotted with water tanks and satellite television dishes. It is largely nondescript, save for winter every year, when the town hosts one of the largest gatherings of demoiselle cranes in India. In Gujarat, sometimes 50-60,000 cranes are seen together for a short period, particularly in Jamnagar.
The birds are found in two principal locations: the village talao or waterbody, and the compound of the pakshi chugga ghar, or bird feeding house, where sacks of grain are scattered every day for the cranes. This ritual of generosity is traced back to a Jain resident called Ratanlal Maloo, who began feeding the cranes and pigeons in his backyard sometime in the 1970s. Over time, the number of cranes increased and Maloo received a plot of land from the local panchayat to build a feeding area for his khurjas, as the cranes are locally called. Today, the initiative is supported by local farmers, traders, and birdwatching enthusiasts who visit the town every year.