We heard them before we could see them. We’d barely exited the car when we were met with that curious call of the sandhill cranes, the short ratchety blasts that sound a bit like backpedaling on your bicycle or the unwinding cast of your fishing reel.
And then the crane dance followed when we came into view, two enormous birds strutting tip-toed like ballet queens, hopping and unfurling their massive wings.
My wife Dianne and I have seen migrating sandhill cranes before, usually when we’re on a fall bicycle ride along the Wisconsin River. They’re out slurping invertebrates from the river bank or plucking leftover corn from adjacent farm fields. But this day we were watching them at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) grounds at Baraboo, Wisconsin. The site includes 15 outdoor exhibit pens called Cranes of the World, one for each crane species. Each spacious area is specially designed for the habitat needs of that species’ bonded pair. For example, while each space has a pond for foraging, the Siberian Crane has a larger pool, as it likes to swim like a swan. These cranes are “ambassadors for their cousins across the world,” says Kim Smith, Chief Operating Officer of the ICF.
The International Crane Foundation is a nonprofit organization centered in Baraboo but working to protect cranes in 50 different countries. They work with governments to protect crane habitat, help native peoples co-exist with cranes in their environments, and breed cranes for re-introduction to the wild. And the Visitors Center and grounds introduce the public to majesty of cranes, educate them about the ICF mission, and provide a “reflective, healing space that is so important right now,” Smith explains.
The 15 international crane species share common features of stick-figure legs, long graceful necks, and large, intimidating wings, but they vary in other markings. North America’s sandhills have grey bodies with a distinctive red cap above and surrounding the eyes. The black-crowned crane and grey-crowned crane of east and southeast Africa sport spiky, tan crowns. The demoiselle crane and red-crowned crane of east Asia have stylish black-and-white tuxedoed necklines. And North America’s whooping crane is stunningly white with black-tipped wings and a red-black head.
Also quite common across the cranes’ physical environs is how they are woven into human spirituality. From Japan to Australia to Mongolia, “cranes are iconic in art and spirituality,” says Smith. Across cultures, she adds, “When you hear that call, it’s a symbol of peace and healing.” In Australian mythology, the yellow yolk of a crane egg begat the sun. In China the crane represents longevity. Their life-long partnering habits symbolize fidelity. For the ancient Celts, cranes were messengers from the gods. Standing upright like people, they were thought to have originally been human. Indian and Nepalese prayer wheels are decorated with images of cranes.
Some cranes are migratory while others maintain fixed homes. Wisconsin’s sandhills notoriously gather along the Wisconsin River in the fall, cooking up flight plans to winter grounds in Florida and other southern locations with access to open water. “Cranes have strong fidelity to their migrating grounds,” Smith explains. “Parents teach their offspring their paths.” That said, climate change and the need for habitat is leading cranes to more northerly winter grounds, such as southern Indiana.
Although many of their habitats are threatened worldwide, conservation efforts have helped to bring some of the species back from the brink. Displays in the Visitors Center (open May through October), throughout the grounds, and on the organization’s website track the species’ numbers over time. North American sandhill and whooping cranes are generally increasing. Sandhills fought their way back from near-extinction in the 1940s, although the whooping crane is still endangered. The Siberian crane is critically endangered, and six of the fifteen species are categorized as “vulnerable.”
In addition to working in the cranes’ home environments, the ICF also operates the Felburn-Leidigh Chick Rearing Facility—or Crane City—on the Baraboo grounds to hatch younglings (called colts) that can be released into the wild. Crane City houses 80-120 cranes, mostly whooping cranes. Bonded pairs in Crane City have their own “crane condos.” And the exhibit cranes sometimes incubate eggs from Crane City, too. “Everyone has a job around here,” Smith laughs.
The international foundation’s headquartering at Baraboo is both fortuitous and logical. Founders George Archibald and Ron Sauey met in ornithology graduate school in the early 1970s. Archibald was a crane enthusiast with a passion for the writings of conservationist Aldo Leopold. Sauey shared the same passions and lived nearly in Leopold’s back yard near Baraboo. The two established the International Crane Foundation on a former dairy farm owned by the Sauey family. “It was a big dream for two graduate students,” says Smith. Today its 70+ staff members work on five continents supporting cranes.
But the ICF grounds support more than cranes. The property also includes over 200 acres of woodland and restored prairie. Dianne and I hiked the grounds in late October while an overcast sky turned gold beneath the fall leaf cover of the oaks and maples. The trails also open onto prairies seeded from remnant patches on the property and from other sites within 50 miles. The prairie pond offers habitat for frogs, turtles, and waterfowl.
The conservationist Aldo Leopold’s famous “shack” on the Wisconsin River sat just four crane-flight miles from today’s International Crane Foundation grounds. In his “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold wrote, “The quality of cranes lies…as yet beyond the reach of words,” and yet his own words captured the sublimity of this ancient bird: “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”
Leopold feared in the 1940s that future generations might never encounter the call of cranes. The International Crane Foundation is working to make sure that never happens.
-- Kevin Koch