Several times every spring and fall, one can hear (and hear for quite a distance) an unusual family conversation across the hills, wetlands, and farm fields of south-central Wisconsin. The opening remarks come from above. A flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes will call from the skies over the International Crane Foundation (ICF). Their rolling rattle will prompt other cranes, earth-bound, to raise their voices. As the curious Sandhills drop in to pursue the discussion, excitement spreads like a rumor from crane pen to crane pen. The heads of a hundred and twenty cranes lift up, long necks bend back, and the bugles cut loose. The clamor shakes the fences and lifts the attention of neighbors. Even the resident crane biologists and ecologists, who know these voices well, take note.
The conversation would not occur under normal circumstances. And it can occur only here: the one place on the planet where all the members of the Gruidae family are present. ICF, in its capacity as the world center for the conservation of cranes, houses representatives of all fifteen of the world’s crane species. From the five continents where they occur—only Antarctica and South America lack cranes—these birds have been brought to this unassuming patch of the American Midwest to answer a special calling. Some inhabit ICF’s public education facilities, where they serve as “species ambassadors.” Others reside in “Crane City,” ICF’s captive breeding center, where cranes are propagated for reintroduction, research, and education. (Over the years, active breeding efforts have come to focus mainly on the two most endangered species, the Whooping Crane and Siberian Crane.)
Amid the uproar of trumpeting cranes, the discerning human ear can make out the family’s varied voices. The more “primitive” species—the Gray and Black Crowned Cranes from Africa—utter short, guttural honks. Those with more elaborate, elongated tracheas—the Whooping Crane, Red-crowned Crane, and Sarus Crane—speak out in bright, stentorian tones. Siberian and Wattled Cranes occupy the higher register. And somewhere in the din the wild Sandhill Cranes issue their coarse, rattling calls.
Having spent eons diversifying from their common ancestor and following their own evolutionary paths, the cranes have now been reunited by their increasing vulnerability. This seasonal dialog between wild and captive cranes is symbolic of the situation that Earth’s biological diversity in general faces. As ecosystems of all types are degraded, the captive breeding of endangered species has become more necessary. But on their own, such programs do not address the forces affecting the places where our fellow creatures evolved and in which they must subsist.
Cranes are among the most endangered families of birds in the world. Eleven of the fifteen species are threatened with extinction. Even the more common species include subspecies and populations that are at risk. The size, ecosystem requirements, and migratory ways of cranes make them vulnerable to a wide range of threats: loss and degradation of wetlands and grasslands, growing pressures on river systems and other freshwaters, illegal wildlife trade, poaching, poisoning, climate change. In many places cranes have assumed the role of “flagship species,” catalysts for efforts to protect and restore diversity and ecological health in the ecosystems where they occur.
Despite the vulnerable state of many species and populations, cranes are in a sense more fortunate than many other endangered forms of wildlife. They are among the most intensively studied families in the bird world. In most of their home places around the world, they are loved and even revered. Their beauty, behaviors, and cultural value provide special opportunities for conservation education and action. Cranes also have the benefit of their own foundation. The International Crane Foundation, since its founding in 1973, has served as a focal point for a global community of researchers and conservationists. Working with colleagues and communities around the world, ICF helps to coordinate field work in landscapes and ecosystems as well as the work that goes on in labs, breeding and rearing facilities, and education centers.
For many of its visitors, ICF is in essence a crane zoo. However, unlike most other “zoos,” ICF did not evolve to take on a conservation mission; it began with conservation as its mission.
In its early years, the Foundation devoted special attention to the development of captive breeding techniques and programs—an insurance policy aimed at securing the survival of the rarer crane species when information on their status in the wild was scarce. Such work is now a relatively small part of a much broader portfolio of conservation actions. Look on ICF’s website and you will find projects focused on safeguarding crane populations; securing ecosystems, watersheds, and flyways; improving local livelihoods; bringing people together; securing water resources; promoting clean energy; conserving biodiversity on agricultural lands; addressing climate change; championing land stewardship; building knowledge for policy and action; and advancing conservation leadership. While ICF’s “zoo” function continues, it serves an expansive mission: to connect visitors to the wide world of conservation.
The Sandhill Cranes, calling out to their extended biological family as they pass over ICF’s Baraboo, Wisconsin site, reinforce that connection. Only a few decades ago, the Sandhill’s voice was all but stilled in the upper Midwest. Reduced to just a few dozen remnant wild birds in the 1930s, persisting in Wisconsin’s most remote wetlands, Sandhill Cranes have now reclaimed this portion of their ancestral range. Thanks to a combination of education, ecosystem restoration, research, and effective hunting regulation and management, Wisconsin is now home to more than twelve thousand cranes. The breeding population has spread to neighboring Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Upper Michigan. As the wild Sandhill Cranes trace their flyways, following ancient migratory hopes and callings, they share this encouraging message with their relatives in Crane City, and with all of us.
This story has been adapted with permission of the author. View the original version in full, published by the Center for Humans & Nature as part of its Questions for a Resilient Future series. Selected sources include the 2015 ICUN Red List of Threatened Species and the International Crane Foundation.
More to the Story: A Conversation with the Author
Agate: In “The Calling of Cranes,” you mention that there are fifteen species of cranes in the world. What are they, and where are they found?
Meine: The fifteen crane species are distributed on five continents. Australia has the Brolga and an endemic subspecies of the Sarus Crane. Asia is the most crane-rich continent, with the Sarus, Siberian, White-naped, Black-necked, Eurasian (or Common), Hooded, Red-Crowned, and Demoiselle. The Eurasian Crane’s range extends into western Europe. Africa is home to the Grey-Crowned, Black-crowned, Blue, and Wattled Cranes, as well as migratory Demoiselle and Eurasian. Here in North America, we have both the most abundant species—the Sandhill Cranes—as well as the rarest—the Whooping Crane.
Agate: Can you offer more detail on the expansion of the Sandhill Crane population in the Upper Midwest, and the status of Whooping Cranes in the region?
Meine: The Sandhill Cranes of the Upper Midwest belong to the subspecies of Greater Sandhill Cranes. At its lowest point, this population was holding on in just a couple locales, mainly in central Wisconsin with a few more birds in the northeast part of the state and in Michigan. The core population in Wisconsin’s “sand counties” provided the main source for the species’ regional recovery. Since the late 1970s, annual “crane counts” have been held—starting in Wisconsin, now expanded to include more than 100 counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. Results vary from year to year, but it’s a fair guess that there are at least 14,000 Sandhill Cranes in the region. (The reintroduced population of Whooping Cranes currently numbers more than ninety.)
Agate: Where can people go to view the fall crane migration? When is the best time to go?
Meine: In the Midwest the fall migration of Sandhill Cranes plays out a bit differently every year, depending on weather conditions. In general, the birds will begin to gather in larger and larger flocks in mid-September, and will remain north for as long as the conditions permit. There are several “staging” and “stopover” areas that provide excellent viewing opportunities as the birds prepare to make the long flight south. In October and November thousands of cranes will roost on the sandbars along the Wisconsin River between Wisconsin Dells and Portage (near, in fact, the International Crane Foundation), and downstream near Spring Green. The Aldo Leopold Foundation provides special opportunities to view these “crane congregations” along the Wisconsin River. A large portion of the Midwestern cranes will then move south to the stopover site at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana.
If people can wait until spring, there are tremendous opportunities to view the great gathering of mid-continental sandhill cranes (which are distinct from our upper Midwest crane population) along the Platte River in Central Nebraska. View near Alda at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center; near Gibbon at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Rowe Sanctuary; and near Kearney at the Fort Kearney State Recreation Area.
Agate: What might people expect to see if they visit the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI? How can people best support ICF’s work?
Meine: Definitely plan a visit to ICF’s headquarters. There you can see and learn about all fifteen species of cranes, their home ecosystems, and the array of conservation efforts that ICF and others are involved in. Visitors will also enjoy walking the trails to explore our several hundred acres of restored prairies, oak savannas, and wetlands. There are many ways to support ICF’s work. Become a member. Volunteer. Attend an education program. Travel to crane hotspots with ICF. If you are a student, consider applying for an internship. Join the annual crane count. And of course, donations and gifts are always welcome.
Agate: Do you have a favorite book about cranes?
Meine: One I can especially recommend is The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes (North Point Press, 2001), by naturalist-writer Peter Matthiessen. In the course of working on that book, Peter spent time with many of us in the crane conservation world. We miss him—Peter passed away in 2014—but he left us this gem of a book (among his many other gems!).
Curt Meine is a conservation biologist, historian, and writer who serves as a senior fellow with both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature; as associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and as research associate with the International Crane Foundation. He has written several books, including Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (reissued by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2010).
Special thanks to photographer Ted Thousand for his amazing images.