Songs and signals on the wings of cranes

We wait as the sun disappears behind the darkening mountains, the chill of winter settling into our bones without the warm beams of daylight enshrining the high-altitude wetland valley. The only sounds are our gentle breathing—making clouds of vapour illuminated by a rising moon—and the distant trumpet of black-necked cranes flying towards their roosting ponds. Deep in the winter of the new year, we listen as they move invisibly through the cover of night: gentle rustles of dark grey and black feathers and a quiet ripple of icy water as they land together. Gangtey-Phobjikha valley has long been blessed with the presence of the revered Thrung Thrung Karmo, as black-necked cranes are known in Dzongkha and Monpa languages. These birds are winter migrants from the Tibetan Plateau where they breed, finding refuge in the warmer, wetland valleys of the Kingdom of Bhutan, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in India, and parts of southern China.

Our team of scientists have been brought together by a single goal—to successfully capture and attach satellite transmitters to several black-necked cranes for a long-term study on their migratory patterns and movement ecology. The odds of success would feel immensely stacked against us, were it not for the collective wisdom and expertise of this team of crane scientists from Bhutan’s first and oldest non-governmental environmental organization, The Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), and Crane Conservation Germany (Kranichschutz Deutschland).

As we sit quietly in the dark, listening, waiting for any sign that the capture set-up has been successful, the distant histories and memories of this place envelop me. For how many centuries has this protected valley sheltered Thrung Thrung Karmo and other migratory waterbirds from the harsh winter months of Tibet—the roof of the world? Here, where they are warmed by lower elevations and the welcome hospitality of the Bhutanese people that have called this valley home for generations. Many residents of Gangtey- Phobjikha consider the black-necked crane to be heavenly birds, divine messengers, and reincarnations of Bodhisattvas1. For many farmers, it is considered a blessing of good harvest for the year should migrating cranes land and dance in their fields of potatoes, turnips, barley, and buckwheat. Still others claim migrating cranes circumambulate the central monastery three times before descending into the valley in the winter, and again while ascending out of the valley on their way to their spring breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau.

Rubbing my hands together for warmth, waiting in the darkened silence, I dwell on the many connections that have formed through the centuries between cranes and mountain communities, manifest in paintings of cranes on the walls of traditional farmhouses; cranes ornately carved into the eaves of the wooden gateway of Gangtey Goenpa, the central monastery of the valley; stories of cranes threaded into traditional dances and woven into songs that mimic their characteristic call: Thrung Thrung, Thrung Thrung. I am reminded of one such traditional Bhutanese song, shared with me many years ago by my friend and colleague, Jigme—the guiding voice of this field excursion, who is in turn a leader in crane conservation and research in the country. I sit next to him as we wait some more through the night, a gentle wind blowing around us, sweeping through the expansive valley, covered in frost, when this song loops in my mind:

This song of antiquity, amongst many others of its kind, marks a long history between the people of this Kingdom and the cranes, which migrate from areas such as Lithang in Kham Province, Tibet. This region, which is intricately tied to Tibetan Buddhist histories and living traditions, was the birthplace of the Seventh and Tenth Dalai Lama. As I sing the song silently like a mantra in my head, I recognize its reminiscence to a verse, attributed to the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, frequently taken as a reference to his commencing rebirth: “Oh white crane, lend me your wings, I’m not going far and away, I’ll return through the land of Lithang, and thence, return again.” Inscribed in both this poetic verse and traditional song are geographical and historical linkages to Eastern Tibet. Each is animated by the migration of the world’s only alpine crane species, the black-necked crane, traversing across the Eastern Himalayas through centuries of song, dance, and recorded tradition.

The moon is high in the sky now, casting a silvery glow across the valley floor. Still, no sign of movement from the roosting cranes. Jigme keeps a watchful eye through the darkness, as I stay lost in thought. Another story enters my mind, shared with me by Sonam, a Bhutanese cultural scholar and friend. He tells me of a 17th century religious teacher who lived in this very valley we wait in now: Tendzin Lekrpai Dondrup, the Second Gangteng Trulku3 (born in 1645). Unable to return to Tibet to see his precious teacher, reportedly the Third reincarnation of Pema Lingpa4, Tendzin wished to send a message. In his melancholic reverence, he sings a song to the black-necked cranes of the valley, asking them to carry his message of respect to his master as they fly back to Tibet, high over the green mountain passes, when the winter frost thaws.

A distant splash breaks my concentration. Our group jumps to attention as we realize that a roosting crane may be caught. We rush off into the night, wading through the ice-laced waters and frosted wetland grasses, to spot an adult crane perfectly held by a leg hold—a time-honored trapping practice, perfected over many years by crane researchers around the world. The hold is released as Jigme cradles the crane gently under his arm. He walks slowly back across the wetland to the field truck, where he kneels in front of the team, a crane tucked safely at his side. The crane is fitted with a solar-powered transmitter—a small device as big as a bundle of incense sticks—that connects to the global cellular network and communicates geographic positions at regular intervals. This device, a humble, microchipped messenger, will tell us precisely where this crane goes, by sending regular signals along the path of their upcoming spring migration to Tibet. As we release the crane to rejoin the others, into the peaceful embrace of night, I am filled with gratitude for the many ways in which we tell our collective stories, and for our world’s many messengers—the songs and signals that are sent upon the wings of the crane—in the present century, those that have passed, and those still to come.

Whether through old songs, narrative verse, or solar-powered transmitter, the black-necked cranes are indeed our precious predecessors, hosts of the skies and the valleys, well-deserving of our reverence. As we drive home to warm beds and peaceful dreams, I am transported to an interview conversation held six years ago with the current Gangtey Khenpo—head of the central monastery of the Gangtey-Phobjikha valley. I had asked him about the significance of cranes in this place, and he replied: “Actually, the land is sacred, and the cranes are noble creatures… The cranes are enlightened, they are also found in heaven. They are very noble, show kindness, help each other, and are very compassionate. They are different from the other birds. They can fly high up, like an airplane… one of foreign disciples did research on this. He wrote a letter on the neck of the crane, and that crane was seen again .”

Perhaps it is the majesty of these magnificent, migratory birds that has fostered such goodwill and inspiration through the generations, and why many dedicated individuals have worked tirelessly to protect critical habitats within their migratory flyway—a route regularly used by large numbers of migrating birds. We see ourselves in them, in their strength, ability, grace, fidelity to place and partner. If we learn to hold their many stories and embrace diverse ways of telling them—across culture, language, discipline, and time—perhaps we can better serve them, as they serve us.

As a conservation social scientist, these memories paint for me a living tapestry—by song and by satellite—of cranes as messengers. Messengers that speak to the richness that can be illuminated when science embraces multiple ways of transmitting knowledge to inform conservation decision-making. It’s an achievable goal that can be equitably and inclusively accomplished in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities. If we choose to listen, these types of historical connections and animating stories can be found threaded through just about everything. And if we do more than listen, we will realize they can add depth, dimension, and meaning to our growing scientific knowledge base through collective environmental and political action. Stories, precious messages from our predecessors, improve our capacity to understand the world’s many challenges and complexities. If we work together in partnership with communities who hold generations of storied expertise, then we will be better positioned to know, conserve, and protect migratory species, like the Thrung Thrung Karmo.


¹Bodhisattva, wylie (byang chub sems dpa’), is a beingon the path of enlightenment for the sake of others

²Translated from Dzongkha to English by Tandin Wangmo

³Trulku, Wylie (prul sku), is a reincarnate custodian in a lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, often recognized as the rebirth of a previous practitioner.

⁴Pema Lingpa was a famous 15th century Bhutanese saint and revered discoverer of spiritual treasures, or Terchen, Wylie (gter chen)

This article is from issue


2021 Dec