In a Crowded India, Farmers and Sarus Cranes Coexist

By Lauren Chambliss
January 8, 2018
A pair of duetting Sarus Cranes is considered good luck for a season’s harvest. Photo by K. S. Gopi Sundar.

From the Winter 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

It is hard to imagine a place less hospitable for cranes than the state of Uttar Pradesh in north­east India. Dominated by crowded ur­ban centers and intense agriculture, Uttar Pradesh is geographically about the size of Michigan, and home to more than 200 million people—about the population of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Typically, that’s not a good recipe for large wetland birds. Yet, in Uttar Pradesh, cranes are flourishing. To the surprise of crane scientists who conducted surveys here, the Sa­rus Crane—tallest of the world’s flying birds, listed as vulnerable on the Inter­national Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List—is feeding, nest­ing, and successfully raising young in rice paddies and wheat fields through­out this tightly packed agricultural landscape.

Sarus Cranes are feeding, nesting, and successfully raising young in rice paddies and wheat fields throughout this tightly packed agricultural landscape. Photo by K.S. Gopi Sundar.Sarus Cranes feed, nest, and raise young in Uttar Pradesh's tightly packed landscape of rice paddies and wheat fields. Photo (with Cattle and Little Egrets) by K. S. Gopi Sundar.

Worldwide, 11 of the 15 crane species are listed as either vulnerable or endan­gered on the IUCN Red List, so the pros­perity of Sarus Cranes in Uttar Pradesh is a happy anomaly. In this northern Indian state that’s famous for the Taj Mahal, hu­mans have managed to make room for cranes, even as people have developed nearly all of their natural habitat.

“Uttar Pradesh is 70 percent agricul­ture, 20 percent urban, and 10 percent scrubland, which is not usually a good landscape for wetland birds,” says Gopi Sundar, crane biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. Sundar initi­ated the first detailed crane survey in the area a decade ago and discovered a population 13,000 strong, and growing. With only around 25,000 Sa­rus Cranes in the entire world, the birds in Uttar Pradesh make up more than half the global population.

“What we found is astounding. A lot more cranes than we ever imagined, and they have been there for thousands of years,” Sundar says. Indeed, there are references to the relationship be­tween Sarus Crane and people in Ut­tar Pradesh in the Ramayana, an epic poem from the 5th century B.C.

“Villagers and farmers not only tolerate them, but welcome them,” Sundar says. “People have evolved with the cranes.”

Sundar, who is also the director of Program Saruscape for the Internation­al Crane Foundation, credits cultural factors for the bird’s extraordinary suc­cess in the region. Villagers here believe the giant bird with the bright red head brings good fortune. In Etawah, a city perched on the banks of the Chambal River, it is believed that hearing a Sarus trumpet in the night means it is a pro­pitious time to take action on a big life event, such as proposing marriage or making an investment.

in Uttar Pradesh, farmers welcome the cranes to their fields. Photo by K.S. Gopi Sundar.In Uttar Pradesh, farmers welcome the cranes to their fields. Photo by K.S. Gopi Sundar.

Kailash Jaiswal, a 21-year-old local Hindu villager, remembers his father and grandfather telling him never to bother the three pairs of cranes that nested on their family’s 2.5 acre farm.

“Even if there was a small bit of dam­age in the field, we would just ignore it,” he recalls. “There was a belief that if a Sarus nests and breeds in your field, the output that year will be much higher.”

But Sarus Cranes are not so beloved everywhere. They construct large plat­form nests that can be the size of a kitch­en table, and they often tear up entire rice stalks for building material, which can lead to farmer complaints and con­flicts. Across the Sarus range—India, Southeast Asia, and Australia—there are few thriving populations. In Cam­bodia and Vietnam, Sarus have declined to only about 1,000 cranes in the wild.

In Uttar Pradesh, the seasonal farming rhythm of planting wheat for the dry season and rice for the monsoon season provides year-round habitat for cranes.Photo by K.S. Gopi Sundar.The seasonal rhythm of planting wheat for the dry season and rice for the monsoon season provides year-round habitat for cranes. Photo by K. S. Gopi Sundar.

But in Uttar Pradesh, the cranes are welcomed, and the seasonal rhythm of smallholder farming is a good fit for the crane’s life cycle. Most farmers employ rotational cropping systems of rice in the monsoon season (good crane nest­ing habitat) and wheat in the dry season (providing a year-round food source for cranes). Studies have shown that Sarus do better in rice and wheat fields than soy or sugar cane.

“The Sarus in India are similar to our Sandhill Crane in the United States in being largely adapted to living on agri­cultural lands,” says Richard Beilfuss, the CEO of the International Crane Foundation. Beilfuss points out that Sandhill Crane populations are recovering because they have adapted to eating grain in farmers’ fields—and because humans in the late 20th century were friendlier to­ward cranes, easing up on hunting and protecting breeding habitat through wetland conservation.

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Likewise, on the other side of the world, Sarus Cranes are further proof that people and cranes can peacefully coexist.

“Sarus Cranes are a flagship for sus­taining this diverse agricultural land­scape,” says the ICF’s Beilfuss. “In India the species is living in harmony with people in one of the most densely pop­ulated areas of the world.”

Lauren Chambliss is a senior lecturer with Cornell University’s Department of Commu­nication. A former economics correspon­dent for the London Evening Standard, she now teaches communication and writes about the environment and sustainability.