By Bob Boucher
Wisconsin, with its’ abundant wetlands, serves as the cradle for the Eastern Sandhill crane to the eastern United States. The recovery of Sandhill cranes in Wisconsin is a remarkable story. Sandhill cranes and other migratory birds were first federally protected to “stop the slaughter” (Flyways, USFW) by the ratified Migratory Bird Treaty Act, (MBTA) in 1918. But it’s enforcement was spotty and its’ implementation greatly relied upon the voluntary restraint of hunters. The draining of wetlands and the continued hunting pushed the birds to the very edge of extinction. In 1935 it is estimated there were fewer than 100 birds in Wisconsin. This moved Aldo Leopold to write, “Marshland Elegy” one of his eloquent essays in “A Sand County Almanac”.
"The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand, adrift in history.” “The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.”
The Wisconsin sandhill crane population is continuing to expand its’ range. This dispersion phenomena occurs when a growing population exceeds the carrying capacity of the local landscape. Crane habitat is a specialized wetland/upland composition, which is finite on our landscape. Once a nesting pair establishes a territory, they defend their home from other cranes to feed and raise their young. Newly mated cranes will search for a suitable place to live and raise their young. The limited crane habitat and growth in this population creates a pressure to expand beyond the current range.
Wisconsin and Michigan both have robust and thriving populations driving this dispersion. This internal population pressure has caused the cranes to search beyond their natal area to find new suitable habitat. This expansion of range is extending into the habitat in the North Eastern U.S. and Canada that harbored cranes in pre-settlement. These crane habitats that have been sitting dormant are being re-populated by cranes, since they were extirpated during early settlement by hunting. But this is a very slow process.
As a Wisconsin hunter for 50 years and an observer of nature, I’ve watched the range expansion of geese, turkeys and cranes in my lifetime.
The sandhill cranes’ life cycle though, is nothing like game birds such as turkeys, waterfowl and geese. Most game birds (waterfowl and upland) will have a large clutch of eggs, larger broods, and will re-nest up to three times in a single season if the nest is destroyed. Sandhill Cranes (all cranes) are biologically different from typical game birds. Cranes will only have one or two eggs, and only one chick or colt as they are called will generally survive to adulthood from five nesting pairs (International Crane Foundation, ICF). Simply stated, it takes 10 cranes to raise one. Nest destruction and colt predation is high (likely due to raccoons, skunks, coyotes, possums) and usually they are not successful parents until several failed nesting attempts. Nesting attempts usually start at about 3-4 years of age and become successful at about 6-8 years of age when they learn how to avoid predators and become better parents.
Cranes live a long time, 20 to 40 years, if they make it to adulthood. We have seen that it takes a long time for a crane population to recover and re-establish to its’ previous range. In Wisconsin it has taken almost 100 years of protection to have the birds successfully re-established into it’s pre-settlement range.
Currently small numbers of cranes (Source: ICF) are dispersing and re-establishing nesting sites throughout the Eastern U.S. (Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts) and Canada. Because Sandhill cranes are especially adaptable generalists in regard to food and habitat, we have seen breeding expanding in the Mid-western states. In the past several decades this is documented in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. (ICF)
DNA studies show that these birds are the same sub-species of Eastern Sand hill Crane as the ones we have in WI and the Western Great Lakes. Many of this population migrate to Florida to the winter grounds and mix with birds that from the Eastern seaboard and disperse from there.
“I documented successful breeding by a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus Canadensis) in a wetland in Kennebec County, Maine in 2000 and 2001”. “These first records of breeding Sandhill Cranes in Maine and New England are likely the result of recent increases and eastward expansion of a crane population.” Scott M. Melvin, PhD. Ornithologist
In his 2002 article "First Breeding Records and Historical Status of Sandhill Cranes in Maine and New England," Scott M. Melvin quotes noted Massachusetts ornithologist E.H. Forbush (1929): "The great Sandhill Crane once roamed the Atlantic coast in migration, and probably was the only crane that was ever common in any part of New England. Like the wild turkey, it disappeared with the coming of settlement and civilization." Mr. Forbush might be happy to know that the turkey has returned and now, perhaps the Sandhill Crane. (Northeastern Naturalist, June 2002)
The sadness is leaving those marshes in the Eastern United States, as cranes come home again. In most areas they have been missing for over 200 years. Cranes are long-lived birds and have been slow to recover from the brink of extinction; they need time and safe harbor to reestablish. Wisconsin is serving as the cradle and incubator to this expansion. History has shown us that it will take another 100 years for them to re-establish viable populations in the eastern U.S.
As Aldo Leopold said in Marshland Elegy;
“And they live and have their being-these cranes-not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.”
Animals respond to hunting pressure. They are not hunted in Nebraska. But, the behavior of the birds (on the refuges of the Platte River in Nebraska) is wary and skittish because they are coming from Texas where they are heavily hunted. In Western States where they are hunted, the birds are wilder and easily frightened. The Eastern Cranes are more tolerant of closer observation and have learned to accept man as non-threatening. In longer-lived animals like cranes, learned behavior is well documented: harassment, poaching and hunting changes animal behavior. The instinct to stay alive is wired into us all, animals can and do learn. The re-establishment of sandhill Cranes in the eastern US will be contracted by the stress of hunting pressure. It’s taken 200 years for them to come back. The future of wildlife in North America and the successful range expansion needs us to think forward and long term.
For the birds to expand and re-establish their population in the eastern United States they should not be hunted in the Eastern flyway. The Federal and State management plans need to continue to allow the internal population pressure for the birds to expand their range. The State officials, WI DNR and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service (USDFW) all need to recognize and respect the iconic value of Cranes to the majority of people. Cranes are miscast as game birds. The agencies need to evolve their policies to reflect a “land ethic” regarding the gift of cranes to expand in the Eastern flyway.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac
The cost to the public is minimal. They are re-colonizing marshes on their own, much to the delight of nature lovers everywhere. Ecotourism and the growth of “Crane Festivals” are celebrations of the recovery of this bird, and its’ greater value to the larger community.
If Hunting is allowed the killing of endangered whooping cranes because of misidentification by hunters may happen. Anyone who has hunted for a time knows that protected animals get shot. Too much effort and expense has been put into re-establishing whooping cranes to allow the barbaric act of shooting them.
The conservationist hunter has invested in the protection of habitat for wildlife. This is a time for hunters to recognize the success and value of the crane recovery. True sportsmen are ethical and exhibit restraint. The common ground for everyone in the outdoor community is protecting wildlife habitat. I have hunted in North America for 50 years and I don’t think there is anything sporting or recreational about killing cranes. We don’t hunt songbirds, raptors or kingfishers, nor should we hunt cranes. Deer and geese are hunted because they recover quickly from “harvesting” and we need to manage them from the damaging effects of a large population. (Game Management, Aldo Leopold)
North America is the only place in the world where cranes are legally hunted. The rest of the civilized world thinks of them as sacred and auspicious. These iconic birds are worth so much more for the beauty, the distinctive call and the nobility they bring to the landscape. In March when I first hear the call of returning cranes, I look skyward with a smile and excitement, as I know spring is coming.
Perhaps, Aldo Leopold said it best,
Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words." ~ A Sand County Almanac
Flyways, Pioneering Waterfowl Management in North America, USDI, Fish and Wildlife Service, 1984.
Scott M. Melvin, PhD. Ornithologist, Northeastern Naturalist, Vol. 9 issue 2, June 2002 p. 193-202.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949.
International Crane Foundation (ICF), Unpublished data.
Paul Johnsgard, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, Ancient Voices over America’s Wetlands, 2011.
Aldo Leopold, Game Management, 1933.
About the Author
Bob Boucher has a MS in Water Resource Management from the UW Madison with an emphasis of ecosystem management of watersheds. He has been an environmental advocate for over 40 years and founded the Milwaukee RiverKeeper milwaukeeriverkeeper.org. He has worked on the protection of the Grey Wolf, Sandhill Crane and other species, and is now spreading awareness and advocacy for the vital role of the North American beaver in the Lake Superior watershed. He is a lover of wild places to explore and play in.