Bringing back a commoner

by K.S. Gopi Sundar

You might remember from the first part of this story that Common Cranes had gone nearly extinct in the United Kingdom. An ambitious and creative conservation project is trying to bring them back to the country. Scientists obtained eggs from a German reserve and hatched them in the UK, taking care not to imprint the birds with humans. I visited the Somerset Moors to see how the batch of young cranes that hatched in 2012 was doing.

Meeting the crane parents

Young cranes grow rapidly and almost reach adult height in just two months. During this time, scientists in costumes start to lead the chicks out to a natural wetland. Here, the costumed scientist parents “teach” the young birds to look for food in the wetland. This process of wearing a costume, and trying to act like cranes, continues ceaselessly for a full two months. I met the cohort of 2012 – 19 lovely young cranes – up close with two crane-parents extraordinaire. Amy and Harry who have been working with the cranes for a long time, allowed me to wear a crane costume and accompany them on their daily rounds with the young birds. Accompanied by Mirabe, my colleague, we walked across the Moors gingerly stepping into the very well hidden and protected wetland enclosure. Immediately, the 19 cranes flew in calling loudly and landed almost on us. They pecked at the crane heads at the end of the sticks we held. This was a good sign that they indeed thought we were adult cranes arriving to feed them. Walking around with Amy, Harry and Mirabel in the swampy wetland, I realised that being a crane parent for a couple of months was really hard work. It must be even more difficult wearing the costume during the summer in the heat. The insects from the wetland must be a real pain too.


The crane parents with their “crane heads” in hand lead the cohort of 2010 outside onto the grassy Moors

Nearly at the finish line

The new cohort walked around feeding, some of them even following close behind us in single file as we crossed a small bridge. Some others were play-fighting:  this activity helps strengthen their young muscles. Adult crane voices could be heard in the air. Far in the distance, a flock of free-flying Common Cranes cut across the cloud-covered skies. The 30-odd birds raised in 2010 and 2011 were busy doing what cranes do in the wild – fly around looking for food by themselves. They did not need the costumed parents anymore. Amy, Harry and gang had nearly succeeded in their efforts! It will be another couple of years before these cranes can begin to breed. That will be the final part of the restoration project.

Free-flying Common Cranes that are breeding in the wild will signal the comeback of the birds that went extinct in the UK. hope to travel back soon to see how the cohort of 2012, and the older and newer cohorts are doing. It will be a great day when Common Cranes begin expanding outwards from the Somerset moors where they are being brought back today, to fill out the countryside as they once used to. The erstwhile commoner will be back.

Inspiring as the experience was, another reality lurked behind this exciting project: it was really difficult and expensive to restore a species. For species like cranes, wild spaces that have minimal human disturbance and a lot of wetlands are needed. Such places are not easy to find in countries like India. The best conservation story is when we don’t need to spend a large amount of money to bring back species. Instead, we should be ensuring that species never get to that extreme stage. Fortunately for Indian cranes, the farmers and rice paddies in north India are a blessing. But that is a story for another time.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 27 February 2013.

Photos: K.S. Gopi Sundar