The September skies of Khichan, a sleepy village in north-west India, fill with the noisy arrival of thousands of demoiselle cranes. These winged visitors transform the nondescript town into one of the most favoured bird-watching destinations in the country. More than 15,000 of these migratory birds, the smallest of the cranes, descend on Khichan every winter, attracting bird lovers, photographers and tourists from both India and abroad.

Demoiselle Cranes India_2014_09_04
Image: spmehra, Flickr

The spectacle of thousands of birds arriving at the 'chugga ghar', a rectangular feeding ground set up on the edge of the village, has earned it the honour of being declared a World Heritage Site by the International Crane Foundation.

But the birds did not always alight on the sand dunes surrounding Khichan in such droves: just a few decades ago, their numbers teetered at just 200. Their extraordinary growth since then is largely thanks to the efforts of one man – Ratanlal Maloo.

More than 40 years ago, Maloo returned to Khichan at the request of an aging uncle and was entrusted with the job of feeding pigeons. Then a youngster, he would carry sackfuls of grain to a designated feeding place and spread them on the ground. After many months of attracting the usual squirrels, pigeons and peacocks, Maloo noted the arrival of a dozen demoiselle cranes. He fell in love with the elegant creatures and dedicated himself to their care and conservation. And, slowly, his feeding efforts saw a steady increase in crane numbers.

Encouraged, Maloo asked the local government to allocate him some land for a designated feeding ground for the birds and space to build a granary to store the grain that had started pouring in from grain traders who supported the conservation of the birds.

Today, the ecological significance of Maloo’s work can be seen not only in the ever-increasing numbers of cranes that arrive in Khichan each year, but also in the birds' peaceful coexistence with the human inhabitants of the village. The cranes receive all the food they require from the 'chugga ghar', which means there's no need for them to ravage the surrounding farmlands (this is fortunate since the feathered guests can collectively consume up to 1,500 kilograms of grain a day!).

Unfortunately, serious threats to the demoiselle cranes remain. Feral dogs see them as easy prey and the birds are often electrocuted by high-voltage powerlines surrounding the village.

It's here that the work of passionate bird campaigner Sevaram Malli Parihar has made a difference. Another Khichan resident dedicated to the conservation of these regal birds, Parihar took action to compel local authorities to address the threat posed by high-voltage powerlines surrounding the birds' feeding ground. Despite setbacks, his efforts have paid off – some of the wires have since been removed and he's also been working with local officials to have all electricity wires passing through the village insulated for the birds' protection.

The stories of Raltanal (dubbed 'Birdman') Malool and Servaram Malli Parihar and their tireless efforts to save the demoiselle cranes are amazing examples of how successful conservation movements can start when just a small number of people step forward to take initiative.

After a lifetime of protecting the birds, Malool passed away in July 2011 ... but his feathered friends (or children, as he once referred to them) still return in ever-increasing numbers every September.

For the full story surrounding this extraordinary crane congregation, check out this video:

Top header image: Francis Bacon, Flickr