Hume quite rightly says that this bird is not properly a game bird at all, but simply comes in as a relative of the cranes which may be so reckoned ; and this is just as well, for it is one of the most conspicuous and ornamental birds in the country. A " common object of the wayside " to the traveller by rail, its tall grey figure, about five feet high, surmounted by the bare scarlet head, cannot escape observation. Almost invariably a pair are seen together, and the hen can be distinguished by being about a head shorter than her mate, who is about five feet long, and stands about as high; for being a bird of very erect carriage the sarus looks all its size, and appears to be the biggest bird in India, though the great bald adjutant stork (Leptoptilus dubius) exceeds it in measurements, and the great bustard, no doubt, in weight.
It is worth noting that the neck in this species, just below the bare scarlet part, becomes white in the breeding season, and the long wing-plumes also get whiter then; for the existence of this white in the plumage, and the general paler tone of the same, are the chief distinctions between the Indian and Burmese types of this crane. The sarus (often miscalled cyrus !) is practically purely an Indian bird, and is not known to occur in Transcaspia and Persia, though, curiously enough, sometimes turning up in Russia. Even in India it is far from being universally distributed, for it does not range into the hills, except in Nepal, where, according to Hume, it has been introduced. Nor does it occur in Mysore or any district south of this, while it is rare in Sind. In the open country of northern India it is well known in all well-watered districts, and rather prefers cultivated land ; it is extraordinarily tame for such a large bird, but this is due to the fact that it is very rarely molested ; its flesh is not esteemed, although the liver is good, and natives do not like its being shot, as they admire it, although not considering it at all sacred.
In case there is any real reason to kill so harmless and beautiful a bird, the pair should both fall together, for there is told about this bird the same tale that is related of the little parrots known as " love-birds," that if one is killed the survivor dies of grief. Love-birds do not always do this, nor does the sarus ; generally, as Hume says, after haunting the scene of its bereavement for some days or even weeks, and calling continually, it disappears," and," he says," it is to be hoped, finds a new mate,. but on two occasions I have actually known the widowed bird to pine away and die : in the one case my dogs caught the bird in a field where it had retreated to die, literally starved to death; in the other the bird disappeared, and a few days later we found the feathers in a field where it had obviously fallen a prey to jackals." No doubt, many birds having pined till they cannot recover, fall victims in this way ; a healthy sarus has little to fear from vermin, at any rate if there is water in which it can more readily stand on its defense. Dogs are easily beaten off from the great nest, which is a sort of artificial island in. cases, built up on a rise in the bottom of some bit of water. where half a foot to two feet of foundation may have to be laid before the nest rises above water, though, of course, actual islets are also selected. The nest is made of reeds, rushes and straw, and is raised more or less above the water according to circum¬stances, the egg-bed being about a foot out of it. In times of rains the birds raise the nest; in fact, their nesting proceedings are much like those of the familiar tame swan at home. Some¬times the nest is built among high reeds, on a platform of these bent and trodden down.
They seldom show fight when their home is invaded, but Hume records a case in which a hen brooding eggs, one of which was actually hatching, stayed on the nest making ferocious digs at a native sent by him to investigate, till he had to flap her in the face with his waist-cloth to get her off; and Mr. D. Dewar, in his book, " Glimpses of Indian Birds," describes how, when a man of his captured a chick, the cock bird deliberately stalked them, and approached within four feet, only to be driven off by hostile demonstrations. His description of the chick is worth quoting: " It was," he" says, " about the size of a small bazaar fowl, and had perhaps been hatched three days. It was covered with soft down ; the down on the upper parts was of a rich reddish-fawn colour, the back of the neck, a band along the backbone, and a strip on each wing being the places where the colour was most intense; these were almost chestnut in hue. The lower parts were of a cream colour, into which the reddish fawn merged gradually at the sides of the body. The eyes were large and black. The bill was of pink hue and broad at the base where the yellow lining of the mouth showed. The pink of the bill was most pronounced at the base, fading almost to white at the tip. The legs and feet were pale pink, the toes being slightly webbed."
Even when the young bird is fledged the head remains covered with this chestnut down for a time; the beak in adults is dull green, as is the scalp, but the legs are always pink, though the eyes become red. The wings do not fledge till the bird is of a good size, and the old ones, at any rate in captivity, lose all their quills at once, like geese, when moulting, so that they must depend on fighting enemies rather than flight during this season; but no doubt they seek localities where defence is easy.
At the best of times they fly but little; if there be nothing such as a fence or copse to hide a possible enemy, they will rather walk a mile or two than fly, and when on the wing do not rise above twenty yards even in a five-mile flight, according to Hume. No doubt, however, their powers of flight are capable of far greater exercise, or they could not get so far as Russia. The call of the sarus is very characteristic, and the male and female sing, as it were, together. First the male, raising his head and bill perpendicularly, and lifting the wings at the elbows without spreading them—much like an angry swan— gives out a loud single note ; the hen instantly follows, the cock replies, till the appalling duet, which can be heard two miles, is finished. It will be gathered from what has been said that the sarus is a pairing rather than a flocking bird, but the young remain sometimes with their parents ; as two or even three eggs are laid, they should make up a little flock, but, as a matter of fact, often only one young bird is reared, a result to which the numerous birds of prey probably contribute, in spite of the watchfulness of the parents, both of which carefully attend the young ones; these are active, not helpless nestlings.
The eggs are very large, long, and hard-shelled; they vary, but may be nearly four and a half inches in length. They are spotted with pale yellowish-brown and purple on a white, pale sea-green, or cream-coloured ground.
The food of this crane is sought either on land or in shallow water, but it is less of a marsh feeder than our other species, and spends more time out of water than in it as a rule, except when nesting. Small animals, such as lizards, frogs and insects, form a large proportion of the food, though much is also vegetable ; and in captivity the bird readily eats raw meat as well as grain.
The only native name that needs be noted in addition to the ordinary one—Sarus—is the Khorsang of the Assamese, in whose country the bird finds its eastern limit.