One of the points in which India recalls classical times in Europe is the yearly winter visitation of the common crane, an enemy to the farmer, just as it was in the time when AEsop's fables were written. Everyone knows the fate of the misguided stork whose virtue did not save him when caught with the cranes, and Virgil complains of cranes as well as geese in enumerating the troubles of the Roman agriculturist.
At home the crane is now the rarest of visitants, and the common heron often usurps its name; and as this bird is found in India too, it may be pointed out, for the benefit of beginners, that though both are big tall grey birds, the crane may be distin¬guished on the ground by the long curved plumes which look like a tail, but really grow on the wings, and especially on the wing by the neck being extended, as well as the legs, herons always drawing the neck back when they fly.
When near at hand—which a crane is nob likely to be, if healthy—it will be seen that it is a much bigger bird than the grey heron, nearly four feet long in fact, and has no crest or breast-plumes, but a bald red patch on the head. The sober grey of the whole of the body-plumage is only relieved by more or less black on the ends of the wings, and by bands of white along the sides of head and neck. The sexes are alike, but the young of the year can be distinguished by a mixture of buff in their plumage, especially on the head and neck, and their less developed wing-plumes.
The bird in the plate, by the way, is much too dark and dull a grey, and has been given a well-developed hind-toe like a heron's, whereas this toe is really very small and quite useless, cranes, at any rate our Indian species, not being perchers like herons. They are also much more sociable, being always in flocks, usually ranging in number from a score in the south, where the birds are nearing the limit of their range, to several hundred in the Northern Provinces. This crane's southern limit appears to be Travancore, and its special haunts are the Northern Provinces of our Indian Empire, while it is not known in Burma or Ceylon.
These cranes may come in as early as August, in Sind, but as a rale October is about the time of their arrival; most go away in March, but some may be found even in May at times. They haunt open places and the vicinity of water, preferring rivers to tanks, but feed much away from the water, as a large part of their food while in India consists of various crops, especially wheat, grain, pulse and rice, for cranes are mixed feeders, not purely animal feeders like storks and herons. Early morning is their chief time for raiding the fields, and they do a great deal of damage, devouring not only the grains and pods of the cultivated plants, but the young shoots. They will also attack sweet potatoes, water-melons, and other vegetables. Dal is about their favourite of all crops, and where this grows higher than they are, they are more easily got at than is usually the case, since they cannot see the foe approaching in the distance.
In the ordinary way they are as wary as most large birds, and take careful stalking, always having sentries on duty when feeding; they are, however, particularly well worth pursuit, as not only are they nuisances to the farmer, but excellent game when obtained, always provided they have had time to eat enough of the vegetable food most of them prefer to get rid of the coarse flavour resulting from the diet of animal small fry they have been eating before the crops are available. This crane is, in fact, one of the delicacies of the classical and mediaeval cuisine which is really worth eating; this being more than can be said for a good many of the fowl our forefathers used to relish so much—in days, be it remembered, when fresh meat during at least half the year was very hard to come by.
At night cranes resort, if possible, to an island sandbank to roost, where they sleep standing on one leg. This is, no doubt, as a protection against four-footed enemies, although such vigilant birds are not very likely to be surprised by such foes. Few birds also will attack this powerful species, and Prince Mirza, in his valuable and interesting book on hawking, translated by Colonel Phillott, says that if you want a falcon to take cranes, you must not let her fly at herons, these being so much easier game. He also says that if one member of a flock is brought down by the hawk, its companions will all come to its assistance, and much commends their esprit de corps Wounded cranes, by the way, run fast and swim fairly well, while they are nasty customers to tackle without a stick.
Their trumpeting note is very fine and characteristic, and, in addition to their habit of forming lines and wedges in flight, has always made them conspicuous ; as Dante says:—
" And as the cranes go trumpeting their call, Trailing their long-drawn line across the sky."
And one of the classical crane stories is of the poet Ibycus, who, done to death by highwaymen, called with his dying breath on a passing flight of cranes to avenge him. The story says the birds did not forget, but some time after were seen circling and calling over a market-place in which the robbers were at the time. One conscience-struck ruffian cried out to his friend, " There are the avengers of Ibycus," and thus betraying his secret, brought justice on the whole gang.
Banging practically all over Europe, though chiefly breeding in the north—including England once—this great bird has naturally left a very marked impression in literature; it breeds all across northern Asia also, and winters in China as well as India. No nest has ever been found in our limits ; the eggs and young are much like those of the sarus, but smaller.
The native name Kullung is generally used also by Europeans; a slight variant is the Deccani Kullam, and Kooroonch is another Hindustani name ; in Manipur the name is Wainu.