The Demoiselle Crane

This is part of a new series of blog posts written in anticipation of the new South Asia and China galleries that will transform Manchester Museum over the next few years (subject to HLF funding). We will be focusing on various subjects that relate to the continent of Asia, and exploring the objects that are currently on display that connect with the themes of the new development. 

For more about the ways that Manchester Museum is changing, have a look at the Courtyard Project blog.

The Demoiselle Crane

Named by a Parisian royal, inspiring literature and poetry throughout South Asian culture and taking on one of the toughest migrations in the world – the story of the demoiselle crane is quite a journey!

Group of demoiselle cranes.A flock of demoiselle cranes. (From: BBC Nature)

The smallest of the crane family, demoiselle cranes are easily identified by their graceful features, slim build, and striking red eyes. When they were first brought over to France from the steppes of Russia, Queen Marie Antoinette was so taken by their elegant, demure appearance she named them ‘demoiselle’, which translates to ‘maiden-like’ or ‘young lady’.

Left, a close-up of a demoiselle crane, and right, a painting of one from the Ashmolean Centre’s Jameel Centre collection. (Sources: Purely Poultry and the Jameel Centre)

Yet, despite their fair appearance, the demoiselle crane undertakes one of the most perilous migrations in the animal kingdom. Cranes are found in central Eurasia, ranging from the Black Sea in the west, to Mongolia and North Eastern China in the east. The cranes from western Eurasia spend the winter in Africa, whilst the cranes from Asia, Mongolia and China spend the winter in the Indian subcontinent.

Demoiselle crane 5A gathering of demoiselle cranes on migration. (Source: Spmehra on Flickr)

In late August they gather in large numbers ready to begin their treacherous journey south. To get to their wintering grounds in India they risk sub-zero conditions flying across the Himalayan mountains. During this leg of the journey, they can reach altitudes of 16,000-26,000 feet, making them one of the highest flying birds on the planet. They achieve great heights by having specially adapted lungs that help them breathe oxygen more efficiently. Many birds die from fatigue and hunger or are hunted by golden eagles.

This video demonstrates the hunting process.

City of Cranes

In recent years the connection between people and the demoiselle crane has taken an interesting turn. In the north-west Indian state of Rajasthan, a small town named Khichan (or ‘City of Cranes’) has taken pity on these weary travellers, and now annually provides grain for them as they pass on their migration south. Villagers fill the town square with feed ready for the cranes’ early morning visit. Creating a spectacular sight, they first cautiously circle the village and then suddenly descend en masse. What started with just a couple of hundred birds 40 years ago has now escalated to up to 25,000 cranes per year.

To find out more about the relationship between Khichan and the demoiselle cranes, you can see more in this short documentary.

The majority of these people belong to the Jain community, an ancient religion that believes humans and animals are all equal. Jainism is one of the oldest practised religions in India, with similar origins to Buddhism and Hinduism. Parasparopagraho Jīvānām is the most important Jain motto, and it means that the function of all souls is to help one another. Therefore, when the villagers saw hungry birds on migration, they felt it was their duty to help them. Members of the community have even petitioned to have the electric phone wires removed to protect the birds from being electrocuted and killed.

Once the cranes have arrived in their winter feeding grounds they begin looking for a nesting site and become more territorial. Demoiselle cranes mate for life and, like many species of crane, perform elegant mating dances in order to strengthen their bond.

The Ramayana

In Indian mythology, it is claimed that the first verse of Valmiki‘s epic poem Ramayana was inspired by the sight of a hunter killing the male of a pair of cranes. Observing the heartbroken female, Valmiki cursed the hunter in verse, and so one of the most important epics of Hindu mythology was born.

Video of demoiselle cranes dancing.

Demoiselle cranes are symbolically significant in both Indian and Pakistani culture. Referred to as koonj, which derives from the Sanskrit word meaning crane, these incredible birds feature prominently in literature and poetry, beautiful women are often referred to as koonj, and people who go on long perilous journeys are also koonj.

Demoiselle crane 6Koonj – a name with many meanings, all of which describe this amazing bird. This is one dancing. (Source: The Internet Bird Collection

It’s easy to see why these beautiful birds are held in such high regard. They embark upon on one of the most difficult journeys taken on this planet – and look good doing it! – inspiring millions while doing so.

To get a closer look at this beautiful bird, there is one in the Peace Case in the Living Worlds gallery.

Demoiselle crane, Living Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.

Laura Bennett

To find out more, watch this: India: Nature’s Wonderland (BBC)

Title image: Sumeet Moghe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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