Crane counters ready for rite of
By Craig Maier
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
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,
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,"
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
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
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