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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Cranes Aloft & Underfoot

As the deep snow departed from Wisconsin fields this month, its place was taken by another sure sign of spring: migrating sandhill cranes. Driving from Milwaukee to Madison one March day we spotted no fewer than 24 -- a flock of 12 circling over a meadow in Waukesha Co., another 8 crossing above the highway in Jefferson Co., and two different pairs standing among the corn stubble in Dane Co. Back in mid-1990s we watched 66 settle down in the twilight at Madison's Cherokee Marsh. For thousands of years, the spring has carried these majestic animals, as tall as humans and as loud as elephants, north into Wisconsin.

They impressed the first white settlers just as they impress us today. Judge Charles Baker, recalling Spring Prairie in Walworth Co. when he arrived in the late 1830s, wrote, "Sandhill cranes also abounded, and sometimes they might be seen in large companies standing erect on the ground, flapping their wings and leaping, apparently performing a waltz or an Indian war dance."

At the time, naturalists were still working out the various species of cranes. In 1851 Thomas M. Brewer, a leading Eastern scientist, wrote Norwegian immigrant Thure Kumlien of Koshkonong, "I should like very well to know more about the sandhill crane, and if it is different from the white species -- does it never become white with you?" Kumlien replied, "If what here is commonly called 'sandhill crane' should become white, it perhaps would be most likely to be the case with old birds or adult ones, birds who have for at least 6 years had nest and raised young ones, or there would likely be at least one white one among all the sandhill cranes I have occasion to see every spring, summer, and autumn, but yet I have not seen or heard of any white sandhill cranes." Apparently whooping cranes were even then extremely rare in Wisconsin.

Although they appear other-worldly, like relics of some long-forgotten, prehistoric world, sandhill cranes were occasionally tamed. Explorer William Keating noted that "Two or three of them were kept last season at Chicago, being allowed to pass freely before the sentinels; but they never failed to return to their nests," and Warren W. Cooke related the following story from his childhood in LaCrosse Co. in the 1860s:

"One day when father was out looking for a deer, he crossed a stretch of meadowland and found a nest of sandhill cranes. They were only a few days old and of course easily picked up. Father put them into a little wicker pen and fed them such food as little chickens eat. They grew very fast and since they were naturally quite tame, they were allowed the freedom of the house and yard. The days being warm -- it being in the month of May -- they had a certain place they would rest in at night. They followed us about as freely as a dog. They would go to the cow yard with us at milking time and pick flies from the cow's legs and bodies, for it was insect food they were ever so fond of. It was not long before one of them was lain on by a cow and killed. The one left would take long trips with me over the hills and, as soon as his wing feathers grew so that he was free to fly or walk, he soon learned to save steps. When I walked down into some ravine and up the opposite side, he would wait on the side of the ravine until I was surely going up on the other side. Then he would spring into the air and fly across to me. When he tired of me, he took to wing, soared up above the trees to a height that enabled him to see the farm grounds, then straight home. On the way he would signal his coming by a 'tar-ra-ra' cry, hard to give tone to by spelling. In his soaring around for exercise, you could get him to come down at once by calling, 'Sandy, Sandy.' On alighting by your side, if you were near the farm corn crib, he would lead you to the crib by a 'guzzy-guzzy' sort of speech which meant that you should give him some shelled corn. Of all the birds and animals we had at various times in our Beaver Valley home, there was not one so novel and interesting as this big, long-legged, dark brown plumaged bird."

Wisconsin is home to the world's premier research and conservation institute on cranes, the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. If you don't happen to see any of these splendid animals overhead in the next few weeks, you can always visit them there alongside their relations from other parts of the globe.

:: Posted in Animals on March 18, 2009

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