The plight of the crane is not for the birds |

The plight of the crane is not for the birds

So, there I was, eyeball to eyeball with a bird whose species is far older than mine, thinking that if it weren’t for the fence separating us he’d be kicking my tail feathers off just for the fun of it.And when I say eyeball to eyeball, I’m talking about standing at my full 6-foot height and hardly having to look down into these avian peepers, as this male Grey Crowned Crane gazed unblinking through a chain-link fence. His female counterpart was standing discreetly in some tall weeds about 20 feet away, modestly averting her eyes as her mate engaged me in a staring contest. He won.I blinked first, and then he did, treating me to the odd sensation of watching eyelids zip shut for an instant from side to side, rather than from top to bottom as human lids do. Our chirpy young tour guide said that some cranes actually have two sets of eyelids, the better to protect themselves from dust and other flying debris, not to mention intimidating the hell out of a homo sapien standing a few feet away.This all took place at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., a town that also has the luck of being home to a Barnum & Bailey Circus Museum and to be perched on the banks of one granddaddy of a waterway, the Wisconsin River.The ICF, founded in 1973 by two graduate students on a 225-acre farm owned by one of the guy’s families, is one of a small number of organizations around the world dedicated to saving these bizarre birds from extinction. There are 15 species of cranes, some of them very close to extinction. The ones we hear the most about in the U.S. are the Sandhill and Whooping varieties, both of which can be seen at the ICF and both of which have come close to disappearing, thanks to human indifference and interference.Many of the residents live in a special pie-shaped enclosure, with wedges for different mating pairs. This is where we saw several types of these imposing, regal birds. Sometimes they’d hide inside small sheds at the center of the structure, sometimes they’d strut their stuff with a marvelous, disdainful grace; one even took it into his head to give us a show of his mating dance. He would spread his wings just a bit, and then leap and whirl around his space with a wild abandon. His mate seemed not to notice, but he didn’t care that the effort was wasted, he just wanted to have fun.In another part of the property, we watched a male Whooping Crane stalking frogs, bugs and submerged weeds in a wide pond where he and his mate hang out. At one point he got excited about a huge dragonfly and went prancing in an ungainly but mesmerizing gate across the pond, back and forth several times as he kept missing the bug with his jabbing beak. He finally gave up and went over to the pair’s nest, to take his turn incubating the egg and to give momma a little time off.They are stunning creatures, and it’s easy to get excited about their fate and the paucity of humanity’s efforts to keep them around, despite the fact that they have been revered by many peoples.”Found on five of the world’s seven continents, cranes have traditionally been venerated in the histories, myths, and celebrations of indigenous cultures. The Japanese honor the cranes as symbols of long life and a happy marriage, and Native Americans have incorporated the crane’s graceful movements into their dances,” according to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.Of course, modern man is beyond all that romantic claptrap – we’ve to things to do, malls to build, goods to manufacture, and the cranes’ habitat just gets in our way a little too often. So we have pushed them to the edge, and they’re teetering there as a very small army of dedicated scientists, wildlife enthusiasts and others wage a desperate campaign to pull them back.The tale of our two species interaction is too long and too involved to tell here, but suffice it to say that I was touched in a tender spot as that crane stared into my soul from the other side of a fence, then slowly turned away and stalked toward his mate. And when my mate, who works at a local preschool, announced her intention to get the schoolkids to adopt a crane as an educational exercise, I felt a touch of pride and hope.The ICF has established a website,, and it has established breeding populations that appear to be winning the battle against extinction. They can use all the help they can get.John Colson can be reached at

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