When I lived in Wisconsin one of the things I looked forward to early in the spring was the Sandhill crane count. It was not often that we saw them, but sometimes in the predawn we would hear them bugling somewhere just out of sight. Now when we visit, thanks to local conservation efforts, we often spot them, brown and tall like deer, against the bright green of the fallow fields in between the corn. Dan laughs because I get so excited to point them out, waaaaaay over there, but I remember how rare that sight used to be. Their higher numbers are thanks to in part the International Crane Foundation, in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I have a soft spot for this organization, in part because a dear friend of mine has started working for them, but largely because of hearing about their unusual methods of raising chicks in captivity. Cranes will imprint on whomever is around to raise them. The grey-crowned crane above thinks she is a person, or rather, she does not realize that she is a crane. Therefore, she rejects any efforts to mate with another crane, preferring to dance for anyone who looks like the man who raised her. During our tour at ICF on Friday, our guide demonstrated her preference by having one man stand near her enclosure while the rest of us stepped back several feet. She immediately dropped her threat postures and began to bob and dance. As the man's sons approached to stand next to him, she again began her ruffling of feathers to warn them away. Apparently she really has it out for human females...
An extraordinary story from the 70's tells of George Archibald, one of the founders of ICF, and Tex, a whooping crane with valuable genes, who had imprinted on a young, dark-haired man. George, himself young and dark-haired, committed himself to pair-bonding with Tex, living in a shack in a field on and off for seven years, foraging with her, calling with her, dancing with her, until they were able to artificially inseminate her and she produced offspring. Isn't that amazing???
What the researchers at ICF came up with early in their crane studies and conservation work was to use puppets as parents for the young chicks, thereby avoiding the human imprinting. This preserved the possibility of cranes finding mates of their own species. Above you can see the head of a whooping crane puppet as well as a dark photo of a researcher dressed up as a crane, teaching young chicks to forage for food. This technique has also been used to teach young whooping cranes to migrate. A pilot, dressed in a familiar "crane parent" costume, leads a flock of whooping cranes in an ultralight on their first migrating flight!
Though it was hot and the sun was relentless, we had such a marvelous time visiting all 15 species of cranes from around the world, learning amazing facts about these prehistoric-looking birds. They are such graceful symbols of peace that it was surprising to hear that cranes are aggressive and territorial. The diminutive Demoiselle cranes were used (are used?) in Pakistan as guard birds to protect people's land. Their most aggressive threat posture is a crouch, which precedes a leap and slashing with sharp toes.
Looking at a tertial feather from a blue crane
The red patch swells when the crane wants to send you a warning signal
We saw several behaviors, including some flirtatious dancing
The whooping crane exhibit is beautiful, with only a few feet of deep water between you and the birds.
This male came out to hunt while we were watching
He successfully caught several salamanders and a crayfish!
After completing the tour and eating a picnic lunch, we walked a short loop of restored native prairie.