This bird is the smallest of crane species. It often gets a mention in the poetry and other literature of Pakistan and Northern India. The bird’s graceful appearance has led to numerous comparisons with beautiful women. The head of the Demoiselle crane is covered in feathers, and it lacks the bare red patches of skin very common in other Gruidae species.
Demoiselle cranes breed in Central Eurasia, from the Black Sea to North East China and Mongolia. It winters in the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. There are isolated populations in Turkey and North Africa in the Atlas Mountains. This species frequents open shrubby plains, steppes, savannahs and various grasslands, often near water: streams, lakes or wetlands. It can be found in semi-desert and deserts if water is available. During winter it uses cultivated parts of India and roosts in wetlands nearby. For African wintering grounds, it chooses thorny savannah with acacias, close wetlands and grasslands.
Demoiselle cranes are both solitary and social in behavior. Aside from the basic activities of eating, sleeping, walking, etc., they are solitary when carrying out preening, bathing shaking, scratching, stretching, ruffling, and feather painting. They are active during the day, when they forage, preen, nest, and look after their young when it is the breeding season. In the non-breeding season, they socialize within flocks. During the night, they rest securely on one leg while their head and neck is tucked under or on a shoulder. These cranes are migratory birds, travelling long distances from their breeding to their wintering grounds. From August to September, they gather in flocks of as many as 400 individuals and then migrate to the winter range. During March and April, they fly back north to the nesting grounds. The flocks on the return migration number only 4 to 10 birds. Throughout the breeding season, they feed alongside up to seven others.
Demoiselle cranes are omnivores, they mainly eat the seeds of grasses as well as cereal grains. They also eat insects such as Coleopteran, as well as lizards, worms and small vertebrates.
Demoiselle cranes are monogamous, with a pair staying together for their whole lives. The breeding season is from April-May, extending to late June in the north of the range. These birds nest on dry ground or gravel, as well as in cultivated areas or in open areas of grass. A pair becomes territorial and aggressive, and will defend their nesting area, sometimes luring a predator away from the nest through a type of “broken-wing” display. 2 eggs are laid directly on the ground. Sometimes vegetation or small stones are gathered by the parents to provide protection and camouflage, but the nest itself is always a minimal composition. Incubation is for about 27-29 days, by both adults. Their downy chicks are gray with a pale brownish head, and otherwise grayish-white. Both parents feed them, and they follow their parents to the foraging areas nearby very soon after hatching. At about 55-65 days they fledge, at 10 months they become independent and can usually breed at 4-8 years old.
Currently, populations of these cranes are not endangered. However, in some parts of their range they are considered a crop-pest, as they do damage crops, and are poisoned or shot for this reason. They are also threatened by drainage of wetlands and habitat loss, and suffer hunting pressure. Some are killed for sport or food, and there is an illegal pet trade in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Habitat degradation occurs in steppes across the range, and also in the wintering grounds and along migration routes.
The IUCN Red List states that the total number of Demoiselle cranes is about 230,000-261,000 individuals. Meanwhile, in Europe this species’ population is estimated between 9,700 and 13,300 pairs (19,400-26,500 mature individuals). In China there are about 100-10,000 breeding pairs, with 50-1,000 birds on migration. Overall, currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) and its numbers today are increasing.