Counting Cranes

North America is home to two crane species: the sandhill crane and the whooping crane, both of which have breeding grounds in Wisconsin, where I live. The whooping crane is an endangered species. In 2021, there were 71 whooping cranes accounted for in Wisconsin, two in Illinois, two in Michigan, and one in Minnesota.

Recently, I was invited to participate in the Annual Midwest Crane Count that took place earlier this month. This got me thinking and reading about cranes: their history in Wisconsin, the recent bill introduced in the state legislature that proposed a sandhill crane hunting season, and what crane conservation can tell us about the larger picture of environmental stewardship in Wisconsin and throughout the United States.

Last week, Paul Robbins, dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and a self-described crane enthusiast, joined me for a radio interview to talk about all things crane. The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

I want to set the stage by talking about this hunting bill (Senate Bill 620) that made its way to the Wisconsin legislature. It failed to pass on March 15, 2022, but I think it offers some insight into how different groups in Wisconsin view the sandhill crane. Why would anyone want a sandhill crane hunting season? And what were opponents of the bill saying?

I can lay out both sides. I think it’s important, I’ll say at the outset, for people who love cranes and birds and wetlands and nature to really think about the communities who live in and around these places. This includes hunters, of course, but most importantly, it also includes farmers here in Wisconsin, and specifically corn-growing farmers. There was a motivation behind the bill that comes from a real problem. Corn farmers who have to lay out seed corn for planting—to make a living, to feed the country, to manage their land—do suffer from depredation by sandhill cranes, whose populations have come back from a very, very small number. So in a sense, this problem would have been unknown to a corn grower in 1950 when the crane population was much smaller, but it is a problem now. It’s really important to listen to the voices of the farmers: they do have a problem, they want a solution.

Four sandhill cranes flying in blue sky with wispy cirrus clouds.
Four sandhill cranes flying in blue sky. Photo by Laura Seaman, 2020.

Now, is the hunt the right way to solve the problem? I’m not a crane biologist, but I want to say that the scientists who follow this question and the International Crane Foundation (where I sit on the board) believe that hunting is probably not the best solution to the problem. And that’s because, first, waterfowl hunting is limited to summer and fall, whereas crop damages happen in the spring. So unless you really just wiped out the population with a kind of cataclysmic hunt, you haven’t actually dealt with the problem. The second reason, they argue, is that you simply wouldn’t want hunting of this sandhill crane population here in the state of Wisconsin, which is one of the most important breeding sites in the country. Cranes, for all their wonder, breed super slowly. If you opened fire now, you’d be dipping into the population in a way that it can’t just quickly recover from. And we have a really special place here in Wisconsin for cranes. The rest of the country is depending on us to look after this giant flock.

How did Wisconsin come to play this special role in crane conservation and stewardship?

Interestingly, when Aldo Leopold was writing the Sand County Almanac back in the 1940s, he predicted the demise of the sandhill crane. Here in the state of Wisconsin, the version of development that we undertook—draining wetlands, habitat destruction, inadvertent hunting, all kinds of things—contributed to a precipitous decline in the species from its historic numbers, which we can only estimate, to almost none. We had a crane crisis. So Wisconsin plays a key role in the recovery for two reasons. One, conservation started getting really smart in the 1930s, and all the way through the 1950s and 60s. This was one of the great places for restoration ecology, which was invented on the University of WisconsinMadison campus with Leopold and his students and others. We learned by trial and error. We got better and better at how you restore land and how you protect it.

People here are committed to conservation. Wisconsin is the epicenter of restoration ecology, and we should be incredibly proud of what we’ve done. Places like the Horicon Marsh, which is really important for whooping cranes, are preserved by the state and by the feds. We have easements, and people here like to set aside land for protection. All of that is good for cranes: you protect land, especially wetland, you protect cranes. So that’s one reason that Wisconsin is crucial. And then there is this migration of these birds coming from way, way up north, all the way through Wisconsin, and then down to the Gulf Coast. We have resident crane populations, but Wisconsin is also an important site for that migration.

A golden-colored sandhill crane with a white neck and a red face stands in a golden field with its beak pointing left.
A sandhill crane stands on guard in the prairie in Westport, Wisconsin. Photo by Dave Hoefler, 2021.

All of that would be enough, but we also have the International Crane Foundation, which probably does more specifically for cranes than any other organization. ICF works with partners around the world, but it was founded in Baraboo, Wisconsin, kind of on accident. A pair of concerned crane enthusiasts were able to access a piece of land where they could think about breeding and restoration, specifically with whooping cranes. Now we’re, like, the headquarters for cranes in the world. I mean, ICF staff work in China, they work across Africa, but the HQ is in Baraboo. For an organization of its size and scale, that’s unheard of.

You recently traveled to Nebraska to see the crane migration. Tell us about your trip and what you saw while you were there.

Oh, it’s hard to put into words. It is one of the most outstanding, amazing moments of nature that you’re ever going to have a chance to see. This is bucket-list stuff for each and every listener, to get down to the Platte River during the migration and sit in a cold duck blind at dawn and see for yourself what 630,000 cranes look like crammed into a few miles of river, what they look like when they take off into the sky in the morning. The sound we heard at the beginning of the show, multiply that by thousands and thousands of animals. They’re coming all the way up from the Gulf Coast, they’re crossing the country, they’re catching a little rest here. So you have this tiny window where you can see one of the most inspiring natural phenomena that you’re ever going to see.

Witnessing the migration is also special because it reminds us that conservation is possible, and that people can fix stuff that’s broken. So the secret to the sandhill cranes being on the Platte is that historically, the Platte River was destroyed as a large wild river, with vast sandbars where cranes can roost. If you grew up in the 70s, you think of it as a very little river. During the flood stage back 150 years ago, however, it flooded a mile wide, and scoured central Nebraska and laid bare all that sand. With all that sand there, you get this perfect kind of migration bottleneck site. Then we dammed the Platte. That’s why it looks the way it does.

Now, with that scour ended, we altered the ecosystem. And what comes in is woody vegetation, which we would think is great. “Hey, trees, good for a nature,” right? Actually, it’s a disaster, since it destroys the roosting habitat. So all those trees are a problem. So what the Crane Trust and the Audubon do is own and manage a long stretch of the river, and using giant machines, they scour the river annually to remove the woody vegetation and restore the habitat destroyed by damming the river. So people have to be active on the land; you can’t just put a fence around a conservation area, cross your fingers, and hope nature will just do its thing. That’s a total misinterpretation. People can fix stuff, but they have to be smart. And they’ve got to be active, and they’ve got to have a lot of love. And that is why the Platte is also special. It’s not just about the birds. It’s about the people who have dedicated themselves to maintaining the habitat.

A large flock of sandhill cranes congregates in shallow water with golden stalky grass and a blue sky
Sandhill cranes congregate on the Platte River in Nebraska. Photo by Paul Robbins, 2022.

Let’s get into the crane count. Why do this count? How is it run? And why enlist citizen scientists to do it?

So the crane count has got a kind of interesting history. You know, it hasn’t been with us forever. People have been counting cranes around the state since 1970s—that’s probably the earliest sort of organized crane counting. But then it became more and more formalized and extended over more and more counties so that eventually you get county oversight of how it’s done. The crane count is all about people. You register, you learn to observe proper procedure, and then you go to the places that you love, like wetlands or places nearby your house. And you join in simultaneously with all these other people all around to count cranes so that we have a distributed map, essentially, of the density of crane populations at the county scale. So that’s pretty cool. With those maps, you really get a sense of where they are right now, and on an annual basis. It originally was just sandhills and now includes the whooper, which is really important.

We have a really special place here in Wisconsin for cranes. The rest of the country is depending on us to look after this giant flock.

It’s a really good sign that we’ve gotten to a place where we can actually count them. In the 1970s, there weren’t any to count. You couldn’t see them. So imagine that we’ve gotten to a place where you actually have to count whooping cranes—and they’re rare, but you can see them. Why is that important? Besides needing to know how many cranes there are, a lot of people have put a lot of time and treasure into bringing these magnificent birds back. And you can’t manage what you can’t count. It’s a key issue. The DNR uses those data, the International Crane Foundation uses those data, those data are super important. Now there are crane counts everywhere, which is important because these populations have multiple flyways and they live in very different places and habitats. It’s good to count because conservation needs numbers.

The other reason, though, is to get people out on the land to just see birds. If you’re not a birder, that’s okay. I don’t call myself a birder. But once you run into a five-foot-tall bird walking around, flying, soaring with their very unique flight method, that is super cool. You won’t look back. The “gateway drug” into conservation in this part of country is the sandhill crane, without question. So bringing people out to participate in the science helps them appreciate the difficulty of conservation. It allows them to see magnificent birds and then ask themselves how they can help in the conservation of the species, whether that’s restoration of their own property, or sending a bunch of money to ICF, or listening carefully to debates in the statehouse over management decisions. A counting public, as it turns out, is a responsive public. And that’s why citizen science works.

A white and tawny brown sandhill crane with a red face looks leftward in front of a lush green forest.
A sandhill crane takes in the early morning light in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. Photo by Mark Olsen, 2021.

It seems like there’s been a shift in the birding community since the start of the pandemic. Are you seeing more interest in birding and in participating in the crane count?

Yes. That’s unquestionable. What we have now is a much higher level of participation in North America. All the way around the world, there’s more interest in seeing birds. I think there are two reasons for this: one, we were all locked down at the beginning of the pandemic. And two, I think we eased our sense of who is a birder. I mean, growing up it seemed like a rather eccentric, upper-middle-class, white thing. “Things white people do.” But it’s not like people don’t love birds in Africa. It’s only racialized through the history of conservation. The participation of much more diverse publics in birding in North America is what we’re seeing everywhere. There are birding organizations with higher levels of participation among disabled folks and people of color—people who maybe didn’t see themselves birding before but now do, and I think that’s a good thing. One of the things we should relax about is what constitutes birding. I mean, there are some things you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t harass birds and run around and scare them off by getting too close with a giant camera. There are some best practices, but after that, it’s just enjoying birds.

Featured image: Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River, Nebraska. Photo by Diana Robinson, 2015.

Paul Robbins is the dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He serves on the board of directors of the International Crane Foundation.

Richelle Wilson is the managing editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She also works as a talk producer at community radio station WORT 89.9 FM. TwitterContact.