Imagine a landscape of pale sand expanding before you in all directions, a dome of cobalt sky overhead. As you gaze across the desert horizon you might, at first, not quite understand what you observe. A sea of gray and black appears to move across the land in a fluid-like motion, yet there is no flowing water here. You catch your breath as you realize that you have come to just the right spot, at just the right time—spread out before you are thousands of demoiselle cranes, gathered together to bask beneath the brilliant winter sun. Their bellies are full with breakfast and now it is time to preen.
The demoiselle crane has a reputation for being a difficult bird to observe in its natural habitat and rightfully so; it lives most of the year in the Steppes of Central Asia and then migrates over the inaccessible Himalayas. However, every year these elusive birds choose the sand dunes of Khichan, Rajasthan in northwest India as their wintering home-away-from-home; and, fortunately for you, the final leg of our Wild Western India expedition brings you to the deserts of Khichan, the perfect spot for the morning of bird watching you’ve always dreamed of. If you are a bird enthusiast, you just might say we’ve saved the best for last.
Named demoiselle (French for damsel) by France’s Queen Marie Antoinette for its delicate, feminine appearance, the demoiselle crane stands approximately three feet tall and weighs between four and seven pounds, making this species the smallest crane in the world. Despite a rather unassuming color palette, these birds are quite striking in appearance—most of the body is covered with blue-gray plumage, while onyx feathers spread upward from the base of the breast to the crown, visually elongating the crane’s already slender and graceful neck. For a bit of dramatic flair, long wisp-like plumes, snow white in color, stretch out from behind the eyes and beyond the head, creating a ring of ivory “hair” that gently flows in the morning breeze.
But the demoiselle cranes seen on Khichan’s dunes do not impress by sheer number alone; be prepared for a complete early morning performance. Like slender dancers draped in blue-gray and black, demoiselle cranes bow, jump, flap their wings, arch their necks, and even throw bits of grass to impress potential mates. Even after a life-long partner has been selected, the dancing continues; pairs “waltz” together often to deepen their bond and alleviate tension. But demoiselle cranes do not only dance—they sing as well. As you stand on the dunes, close your eyes and listen closely and you will hear a complex assortment of deep-toned calls mates use to communicate. What they are saying, you can only imagine, but we think something about their winter desert sanctuary is a safe bet.
Scientists and experienced birders alike identify the demoiselle crane as Anthropoides virgo, but the people of Khichan call them Kuraj, and from the way these birds are protected and revered, it’s no wonder they have also been called The Royalty of Khichan. The cranes’ safety is such a concern that high tension wires have actually been taken down in some areas to ensure these birds can fly freely without risk of injury or death. It’s no wonder the demoiselle cranes return, winter after winter, to the sand dunes of Khichan. Are you ready to join them?