When I convinced my family to go on a three hour drive from Chicago to Baraboo, WI, to see the birds at the International Crane Foundation, I didn’t let on that I feared we might only see them from a distance. Luckily, I was wrong. Baraboo is the only place in the world you can see all 15 species of crane–though on the day we visited the blue crane was in hiding because she was mourning the loss of her mate.
The center gives the tall birds a lot of autonomy. They can choose when to go in and out. And who they mate with. Since the center is breeding for species survival (10 of the 15 species are endangered or threatened; subspecies of the sandhill crane are, too.), they will sometimes use artificial insemination to get a stronger match.
“Cranes get to pick their mate, even in captivity,” our excellent guide Shannon told us. She explained that the current Sarus Crane pair are mismatched in age (he’s 47, she’s 8), but they each had rejected other cranes after losing their mates. Cranes typically mourn their mate for hundreds of days and the male Sarus grieved for two years, rejecting birds the center installed next door to him. These are the tallest (6′) and most impressive cranes–even though the male diminished his wow-factor by sitting down.
Shannon explained the captive courtship process as we passed two seemingly empty black-necked crane pens. Biologists start the potential pair out side by side, but with a divider, like from It Happened One Night. Gradually, they remove the cloth from the fence. If the birds are interested in each other, they will start to mimic each other’s behavior and even dance. We came back after the tour and got to see some progress in the relationship. The male emerged, pruned himself–and a good thing, too, because the female came out a few minutes later. He did a little dancing and pecking on the ground, she followed. The crowd was ready to declare them a couple.
Without our guide we wouldn’t have understood much of what was going on in crane world. Shannon told us right away that the cranes might look like they’re happy to see you, but really they’re trying to scare you away. As we crowded around the first bird, a gray-crowned crane, Shannon explained that since she was raised by humans, she was hopelessly looking for a human mate. The bird hated all the female humans who fed her–even if they dressed up as men. No one is sure how she figures it out. She was hostile to our group, pecking at the fence. “Let’s see if we can get another behavior out of her,” Shannon said. She asked us all to step back except for one man in a red shirt. Once he got the crane’s attention she started to flirt and dance for him.
Other cranes, Shannon said, would be happy to see us go. The Australian Brolgas, which have an orangeish stripe, first charged at a man in an red shirt. (Most cranes puff out their red feathers to show dominance, so red clothes are taken as offensive.) The cranes, which were taking turns sitting on a nest, recognized individual humans and deeply resented staff. “I’ve come by many times. I bring lots of people. They’ve told me to stay away again and again,” Shannon listed off the reasons the Australian cranes despised her.
The big stars are the whooping cranes, the rarest cranes in the world, who live off in their own theatre/enclosure. A pond backs up to the stage, where Shannon explained how the center worked to save the cranes from extinction. As if on cue, the whooping cranes then put on a show, with the female showing off how she can stand on one leg and the male hunting for something under the water. When Shannon was showing young kids the whoopers, they put on a real show, attacking red-winged blackbirds that were mobbing them. I’m sure I would have liked the crane center without Shannon, but I never would have gotten the insight into what was going on.
Although the center draws 25,000 visitors a year and doubtless converts most to crane lovers, the real work is behind the scenes in “Crane City,” where they’re working to save the Whooping Crane through captive breeding. An hour north at Necedah, birds learn to fly by following a person wearing a crane costume piloting an ultralight. A friend went to see that spectacle and recommended against it for the mosquitoes. (I’d still like to go.) Once a year members get to see Crane City, at the upcoming Cranes of the World Festival.
Check Out Cranes of the World Festival, Sept. 24-25, Baraboo, WI
See the Whooping Crane and Wildlife Festival, Sept. 18, Necedah, WI
Where to See Animals in the Midwest
Where to See Weird Birds