Mrs. Shakti & Mr. A S Bishnoi

Khichan: Home to Demoiselle Cranes

Khichan: Home to Demoiselle Cranes

By Mrs. Shakti Bishnoi and Mr. A. S. Bishnoi

From late August or early September to the end of March, one can witness the extraordinary and amazing sight of hundreds of Demoiselle cranes (Anthropoides virgo) wintering near Khichan. This wintering population sometimes increases to several thousand by midwinter. Around sunrise and in the late afternoon, the birds circle overhead, then make a dramatic descent for consumption of grains that villagers spread for them at the Birds Feeding Home locally known as Chugga Ghar.

Demoiselle Cranes in Khichan

The Demoiselle cranes are Brown-grey birds with a black chest and throat, demoiselle cranes stand about 75 cm tall, and have a long neck and a short beak. It was the 18th-century French queen Marie Antoinette who dubbed the cranes ‘demoiselle’, for their grace, when some were taken to France from the Russian steppes. In Khichan, they are known as kurja.  In traditional Marwari songs, women beseech the cranes to bring back messages from their loved ones when they return from distant lands.



Khichan:

Khichan is a village in Rajasthan state of India. It is located in the Phalodi tehsil of Jodhpur district. It is known for a large number of demoiselle cranes that visit very winter. This annual bird migration began with around a hundred cranes in the 1970s, when a local couple started feeding pigeons. In the recent years, this particular village is pulling a lot of native and foreign tourists because it has established successfully a tradition of feeding and taking care of wild birds, mainly the Demoiselle cranes that migrate to this particular region during the winter season every year.

The sight of these wonderful birds in such large numbers descending on the feeding ground is truly awe-inspiring, and the noise of the assembly is amazing. It’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the area. We visit every year since 2002.  During the day, many of the cranes can be found around a small lake on the east side of Khichan.  The demoiselle cranes also winter in Pakistan and Africa. To migrate they must cross the Himalaya from their breeding range, which extends over a wide belt spanning eastern Europe, Central Asia and eastern China.

Rajasthan is home to large numbers (and many species) of these winter migrants, and draws bird lovers and ornithologists from around the world.  Kichan, with a few open fields and a couple of small ponds, is on the face of it an unlikely destination for either birds or birders.  There are plenty of large water bodies throughout Rajasthan, and the state itself has become greener over the past several decades.  And yet it is Khichan that boasts, perhaps the most spectacular display of feeding birds.

The little lake near Kichan has other residents – lapwings, stilt, shovellers, godwit, kingfishers, little grebes – but of course the cranes were the big attraction for us. Birds, Demoiselle Cranes mostly, have been coming here for centuries.  About a century and a half back, some local Jains began leaving grain in the fields for the avian visitors.  Over the years the numbers of birds grew, and today Kichan is home to over 20,000 (approx..) demoiselle cranes every winter.

Our Journey:

We started our journey from Pune (MILIT) on 22 Dec 2019 and with two halts (Ahmedabad, Jodhpur ) reached Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer, the city of golden stones mesmerized us and we stayed there for two days and visited SAM desert/Tanot Mata ka Mandir. After our excursion, we left Jaisalmer on         31 Dec 2019 the last day of the year and arrived at Khichan an hour and a bit more before sunset, just in time to see the last of several flocks finish their evening feed near a small lake before taking off for the night.  There were plenty of other birds busy in their chores – going about their business in the lake: pintails, grebes, stilts, lapwings, herons and many others, but the cranes, congregated by the opposite shore, caught our attention.  We caught our first glimpse of their behavior as a flock and our daughter Kanan was enthralled with the mere sight and numbers.  She was awed, but this was the merest appetiser for what we were to see the next morning. She began throwing questions about them and I kept on answering and clicking photos.

During my childhood days we used to visit Kichan by bus costing Rs 2/- and today I was with family and leisurely watching them. We headed to our ancestral village Lohawat which is just 40 km away en-route Jodhpur. When we met relatives, cousins and village elders, they were ecstatic as well as nostalgic as I had left this village in 1999 and had had become a part of the urban jungle. I told them that still my roots are there. In villages late night conversation are considered normal. With the lovely view of unpolluted sky and constellations listening to our conversations, these conversations often extend till wee hours in the morning. I had to get up early so I had to request my cousins and sleep. It was chilling cold. We entered our quilt and soon it was only the snoring sounds that broke the sounds of silence.

Kurja 

It was first day of 2020 and after half an hour drive from Lohawat we reached Khichan at 6 am in the morning. All of us including my little daughter and cousins were equally excited with the sight of cranes despite the temperature dipping to 7 degree C early morning. It did not matter as the very excitement to see cranes mellowed down the bone chilling cold.

The sun was yet to show its golden colour, but the sharp cries of the cranes was very evident and as we looked up, we saw flock after flock wheeling overhead as if we were welcomed by them. Somehow I took out my camera despite the freezing cold and positioned it on tripod and started clicking photos. But the sight with naked eye was beyond comparison and we all enjoyed their movement in the sky and nearby lake. Even my daughter with her small camera was excited and managed to click wonderful photos.

Kurja-Chugga Ghar

After spending two hours we headed towards Chugga Ghar. We noticed an uniformed man with a stud adorning each ear, Sewaramji  was spreading birds’ feed – Jowar – around the empty plot earmarked as Chugga ghar where every individual spreads Jowar for Crane. We knew him from our childhood days and greeted him with respect. We Congratulated him for his achievements and awards and his eternal selfless task which he undertakes with interest without any returns.  This is a substantial task.  Twenty thousand and more cranes fly in around late August to mid September and leave for their Mongolian and southern Siberian summer homes only in March.

Chugga Ghar



The flock of demoiselle cranes consume a phenomenal 600 kg of grains each day. This grain feeding activity is funded by local donors from Khichan and surrounding villages. We donate around 1000 kg from our farm for their consumption annually. Donors from other places also contribute on an annual basis to this Chugga ghar. As Bishnois it is in our blood to look after nature and wildlife. Various Jain charities also pay for bird feeding and Sewaramji and his helpers ensure that the food is ready when the birds arrive.

The cranes were everywhere – flying in frenzied circles above us and perching on every empty patch of land all around.
We saw an immense fluttering, a huge flock of pigeons flew past, circled the field once and then landed to begin a feeding frenzy amidst much frantic cooing and clucking.  My daughter asked why they came, cranes must eat first.  Before I could answer her, Sewaramji like elderly person assured her and told her that  the pigeons always feed first and leave and only then do the cranes come for their feed.  So daughter waited for a while, and suddenly flock of pigeons took off. After a while, there were thousands of cranes hovering in the sky and landed in the Chugga Ghar. We were awestruck with the sight. This sight was very common to me as we used to observe them with naked eye in 1990s and with fond memories used to return to our villages. In the meanwhile, I  forgot, for some time that today I have camera to capture these wonderful creation of God and keep with me forever. That is the mesmerising impact of the sight of thousands of demoiselle cranes. So I took out camera from my car and positioned myself near the fence to have a better view.

There are many houses with terrace near to the Chugga Ghar and locals permit all tourist to have a look from their house. Known locally as Koonj, these birds are said to have inspired Valmiki’s poetry and are a metaphor for faithful loving couples in the legends and literature of North India. They were clearly social birds.  The way they flew in flocks for the feed, the way they congregated as they fed with a minimum of jostling and quarreling but with plenty to say as they fed, they way they left in batches as they finished and the way the entire lot moved from place to place around Kichan all suggested strong social bonds.

My daughter and my wife had never seen anything like this.  As each group finished eating, they gathered themselves for the choreographed take-off: standing erect and all facing the same direction much like a military drill in formation before taking off. They fly to the water bodies around Kichan, one of them is our pilgrimage place JAMBHA before flying to their roosting grounds in the fields at dusk.

Co-Existence

The local people of Kichan take pride in the birds and in-fact are  aware of their movements, timings and habits and ensure that they are protected. The birds themselves go about their routine unconcerned about the humans they share their space with.  Now a days dog menace has increased a bit and few causalities takes place due to dogs.

Dogs have emerged as a major threat to Demoiselle cranes

Earlier when these beautiful cranes flew, they would come in contact of high tension wires and die. It was – Sevaram Malli Parihar — who took upon himself to get these high tension wires removed. He filed complaints with the Deputy Collector of Phalodi, the Rajasthan High Court and Rajasthan Electicity Board (REB) to remove these wires. In retaliation, a fine of Rs. 4,27,890 was levied against him by the REB.  Along with the Rajasthan Forest Department, he fought the fine and won. Finally the poles and high tension wires were removed. He has also worked with the REB to insulate all electricity wires passing through the village of Khichan.

Demoiselle cranes get caught in the Powerlines

Kichan is not an official sanctuary yet, however the people here have accepted the birds as part of life so the Demoiselle cranes feel safe and visit year after year, increasing in numbers as the years go by.  Infact in other places the number of migratory birds are decreasing due to various reasons, however, in Khichan with humane touch, their population is more or less stable if not increasing rapidly. Khichan and Kurja are synonym and Inseparable. It is  a strong message and lesson for all of us : that we can stay in harmony and peacefully as the birds too equally share this earth for their very existence and they have every right to live.

We should support their existence and our existence will be automatically ensured and future generations will be able to see such unique congregation of one of God’s wonderful creation – Demoiselle cranes.

 



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Mrs. Shakti & Mr. A S Bishnoi
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