The Sarus


Having discoursed upon the adjutant, it seems but fitting that we should turn our attention to another long-shanked gentleman -: the sarus. The adjutant is, as we have seen, a stork, while the sarus is a crane. I do not know whether this conveys very much information to the average mind. Most people will, I imagine, " give it up " if asked, " What is the difference between a stork and a crane ? " Yet there are considerable differences between the two; they belong to different families, and, like rival tradesmen of the same name, " have no connection with one another." I do not propose to detail the anatomical differences between storks and cranes, for the excellent reason that I myself do not know them all, nor have I the least intention of acquiring such knowledge. It forms part of the dry bones of science, and these are best left to museum ornithologists to squabble over. There are, however, one or two simple points which suffice to enable us to distinguish at a glance a crane from a stork. The hind toe of the stork is well developed, while that of the crane is small and does not touch the ground ; the consequence is that the stork likes to rest on trees, while the crane prefers to stand on terra firma on its flat feet. The nostrils of the crane are half-way down the beak, while they are at the base in the bill of the stork. The crane nests on the ground; the stork builds in a tree. Young storks are helpless creatures, while little cranes hop and run about from the moment they leave the egg. Lastly, the crane has a voice, a fine loud voice, a voice that can be heard a mile away, a voice like a trumpet, for its windpipe is coiled. King stork, on the other hand, has no voice; when he wants to make a joyful noise he is obliged to clap together his great mandibles.

Cranes have been favourites with man from time immemorial. The result is that ancient and mediaeval writers have plenty to say about them. Now the naturalist of old considered himself in honour bound to attribute some wonderful characteristic to every beast of which he wrote. If he did not know of any clever thing done by any creature, he invented something for it to do. This method had the advantage of making natural history a very exciting and interesting study. Cranes were supposed to perform all manner of tricks with stones. As we have seen, they are blessed with powerful voices, and, like other loud-voiced people, find it difficult to keep silent. They are fully persuaded that silence is golden; but, when it comes to acting up to this belief, the flesh proves itself very frail. Thus it came to pass that the sagacious birds, when migrating, used to stop up their mouths with stones. As they are far too well-bred to speak with the mouth full, they were able to maintain a decorous silence when travelling.

I can cite plenty of authority for this statement. There is, in particular, no less a personage than "Robert Tanner, Gent. Practitioner in Astrologie and Physic." " The cranes," he writes, " when they fly out of Cilicia, over the mountain Taurus, carried in their mouths a pebble stone, lest by their chattering they should be ceased upon by eagles."

The cranes had yet another use for their stones. When the main body were resting at night, sentinels were posted to guard against surprise, so that the company could go to sleep in security. To ensure necessary vigilance, the sentinels stood on one foot and held in the other a large stone. If they inadvertently nodded, their muscles relaxed and the stone dropped. This, of course, used to wake them up. Even Alexander the Great was glad to learn a lesson from the cranes. He used to go to roost with, not a stone in his hands, but a silver ball, as more befitting his royal dignity. On the slightest movement the ball would fall and he wake up. Thus it was that he never overslept himself. We do not do such heroic things nowadays; nor do cranes.

Cranes are birds which will not stand nonsense. The pigmies used to go egg-collecting among them; the result of this was, to translate Homer: -:

When inclement winters vex the plain, With piercing frosts, or thick descending rain, To warmer seas the cranes embodied fly, With noise and order, through the midway sky : To pigmy nations wound and death they bring.

Notice that as the cranes were on the war-path there was no necessity for them to fill their mouths with stones; they wanted all their lung power to bark at their pigmy foes.

Having considered cranes as they are not, it behoves us to glance at them as they are. The sarus is a handsome creature. It stands over five feet high. The general colour of the plumage is a beautiful French grey. The head and long neck are devoid of feathers, but are covered with numerous tiny crimson warts or papillae. These assume a deeper hue at the breeding season, which occurs from July to September. There is a patch of grey on the sides of the head. The throat and a ring round the nape are covered with black hairs.

Saruses feed upon vegetable substances, insects, earthworms, frogs, lizards, and other small reptiles, with an occasional snake thrown in by way of condiment. "This," remarks Babu Ram Brama Sanyal, "shows the kind of accommodation they must have."

Saruses are not gregarious birds, but hunt in couples and are said to mate for life. It is further asserted that when one of a pair is killed the other pines away and dies. I believe this to be true, although I cannot vouch for it, and am certainly not going to put the statement to the test by shooting one of a pair : for these cranes are such tame, confiding birds that to shoot them savours strongly of murder.

According to Jerdon, a young sarus is not bad eating, but old birds are worthless for the table. Lucky old birds! Saruses thrive very well in captivity. As they habitually indulge in all manner of eccentric dances they make most amusing pets. They are usually gentle and let strangers caress them and tickle their heads. But I always let others try this on for the first time with a strange crane, because some birds resent this head-tickling and, to again quote from the worthy Babu above mentioned, " appear to exist only as it were for pecking at everything, bird, beast, and man: children being the special object of their wrath."

There are two cranes in the " Zoo " at Lahore; they are a most mischievous couple. They used to be kept with the ducks and geese, and amused themselves by rooting up all freshly planted rushes. At feeding time it was their habit to hop from one dish of food to another with outstretched wings and thus frighten off the ducks and secure the lion's share for themselves. They were then removed to the enclosure where the adjutants are. They started playing tricks on these, but the adjutant has a powerful beak which he is quite ready to use when necessity arises. The result is that the saruses are not on speaking terms with the adjutants.

Unlike the adjutant, whose nest is a huge platform of sticks placed on the top of a very lofty tree, the sarus builds its nursery on the ground. This takes the form of a large cone, several feet in diameter at the base and two or three feet high. It is composed of reeds, rushes, and straw, and placed by preference in shallow water, Great care is taken to keep the eggs above water level. If, as is apt to happen in India, heavy rain comes on after the completion of the nest, the parents speedily set to work to raise the eggs by adding more material to that upon which they rest.

Birds Of The Plains
Dewar, Douglas. Birds of the Plains, 1909.
Title in Book: 
The Sarus
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 

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