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Crane counters ready for rite of spring
By Craig Maier
Capital Newspapers
04//05/04

In less than two weeks, 2,500 people across five states and 100 counties will rise before dawn to participate in what one volunteer called a ritual of spring.

On Saturday, April 17, they'll be posted around bogs and marshes to listen for the trumpeting calls that nearly vanished from Wisconsin in the 1930s.

"It's a thrill to listen to the cranes," said Joy Eriksen, Columbia County's coordinator for the Annual Midwest Sandhill Crane Count since the mid-'80s. "Just living in Wisconsin, I've found cranes to be such a fascinating bird."

The International Crane Foundation began the crane count in Wisconsin in 1976. Since that time, the sandhill crane population has expanded, and crane counters have followed the flocks into Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa.

The tradition has become one of the largest scientific inventories of a single species in the world, due to the network of people who reach their wetlands by 5:30 a.m. one morning each spring.

"Counters are very loyal to their sites," said Eriksen, noting, "I had one counter who made sure her site was being counted even though she was getting married (the day of the count)."

Training for first-time crane counters includes listening to recordings to recognize the calls of breeding pairs, but learning continues in the field and from year to year.

"Basically, it's on-the-job training," the coordinator said, explaining that a new counter may be sent to a small wetland with few breeding pairs the first year but then progress to more complicated sites.

With bigger flocks, there is no way to count the individuals, but estimates get better with each year of experience, Eriksen said.

Dense fog in April 2001 contributed to a low count, Eriksen said, but the timing of last year's spring migration made for a record high in Columbia County. "There are so many variables - the count is definitely an estimate," she said.

Brian Barch, a naturalist at ICF, explained that year-to-year anomalies don't make such a big difference when the data is considered in terms of trends over five, 10 or 20 years.

Booming crane population pecking at profits

"We here in Columbia County are one of the largest counts because we have large areas of wetlands and large areas of food source," Eriksen said.

Central Wisconsin has one of the largest concentrations of sandhill cranes in the world, acknowledged Barch. Aldo Leopold estimated that less than 30 breeding pairs survived in the 1930s, but sandhill cranes have benefited from wetland restoration and hunting laws.

The birds have also proven very adaptable, and many now nest in wetland areas but feed mainly on croplands, Barch explained.

That has been a problem for a number of farmers, especially since there is no federal aid program to reimburse producers for losses from sandhill cranes.

In April 1999, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress recommended a crane-hunting season to help reduce crop damage and increase hunting opportunities.

Barch noted, "This is an issue that people feel very strongly about," and briefly summarized research into sandhill crane habits.

During fall hunting seasons, he explained, cranes from around the Great Lakes region congregate in central Wisconsin before flying south. With cranes from northern Wisconsin, upper Michigan and Canada in the area, a hunting season would not necessarily kill or substantially reduce problem cranes, researchers say.

Barch said researchers in the Briggsville area are looking at the behavior of problem cranes. The goal there is to find solutions short of a hunting season to help people and cranes coexist. One study is assessing if corn can be treated so that cranes will dislike it and won't eat it.

Crane counts may reveal places where the crane concentration is rising and which may be future sites of problems between people and cranes, Barch noted, meaning the event could be valuable to communities across the Midwest.

Eriksen noted that the count helps track changes in populations but also follows particular sites. In the Portage, Pardeeville and Wyocena areas, some sites have been lost due to development. New sites have been added as wetlands have been restored, too, she said.

The count could also help other crane species -- like the sandhill crane at mid-20th century, Barch noted, 11 of 15 crane species are threatened with extinction.

The volunteers who enjoy watching the sunrise and listening to the bugling birds may be contributing to the survival of those other species. Barch commented, "Anything we can help learn here in our back yard might help us learn how cranes and people can each get what they need."

People who would like to get involved with the crane count can contact the International Crane Foundation's education office at (608)356-9462, ext. 127 to find their county coordinator.

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