Le Question: What colour is the eye of the Sarus?

Seeing eye to eye with the Sarus Crane evokes a host of questions and the answers aren't exactly simple

Shashwat and I were driving along a small arterial road in Rae Bareli, checking out the pairs of Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) among the paddy fields on either side. It was the end of a relatively warm November day, and dusk was imminent. We came across a beautiful female near a clump of reeds by the roadside -- though sexes are almost alike, I could tell since it was smaller than the male, which was foraging a few metres away.

Me: What colour is the Sarus?
Shashwat: Grey, White.
Me: What is the colour of its face?
Shashwat: Red
Me: And the color of its beak?
Shashwat: White, Grey
Me: And the eye?
Shashwat: The Sarus has no eye!
The Sarus hadn’t lost an eye but we were looking into the setting sun with the clump of reeds and the bird in the foreground. Its bright red eye was hidden in the glowing red skin of its head -- you actually could not see it. I knew the eye existed and that he was only telling me what he saw. We were both right, as a Zen master might say, but he was in the "moment"; the unconditioned observer.

When I had just begun birding and were trekking in the Himalaya with Jennifer and Sunita, Jennifer had given us the mantra – “Observe”. Too often, instead of first observing the bird we jumped into identification, trying to find the hard rock of certainty to arrest the mind's free fall, and hence made assumptions. With Jennifer around, a few questions quickly unraveled the lack of observed detail and a rap on the knuckles followed. Quite often I still fall into that trap.

We also anthropomorphise. Some of it is simply the limitation of language but often it’s the way we like to see things. So birds dance, species compete for survival, ants raid other nests and take slaves, etc.

With the Sarus I just cannot help it. The mere sighting of a pair amidst green paddy fields lets loose the barrage of adjectives - beauty, grace, elegance, magnificence -- all the verbiage one would use in an old-fashioned beauty contest.

This photographic sequence below is actually of a pair preening -- yet, I cannot think of it as anything other than a ballet. However hard I try, it's hard to see it as a mere bird. Its presence in the landscape is much more than that. You would expect that from the world’s tallest flying bird that looks straight into your eye.

The Sarus has a beautiful sparkling red eye with a black pupil -- right at the top edge of the flaming maroon-red face patch (though you don't quite see that in the pictures).

Text and Photographs by Sahastrarashmi
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