Amazingly Graceful Cranes

Sandhill + Sandhill © Elizabeth G Fagan, 8"x8"


A lone motorist travels an Ozaukee County highway flanked by late-summer fields of golden oats and grasses. There, mid-field on the right, a beaked triangle swivels, seemingly unattached to neck or bird.

In the blink of an eye, four identical triangles swivel as one, their reddish-yellow eyes fixed silently on the motorist. The car travels past, and the triangles sink back into the sea of gold.

The motorist has just been lucky enough to spot a family of one of Wisconsin’s most spectacular creatures: the Sandhill Crane. However brief, the meeting is memorable, transcendent. At once profound and whimsical. Throughout history and around the world (cranes exist on every continent except South America and Antarctica), humans have reported such mystical encounters with the existing 15 crane species.

But cranes are not always so subtle. For one thing, the birds are enormous. Mature Sandhill Cranes stand about 4 feet high, with wingspans up to 7 feet. At 5 feet, with an 8-foot wingspan, the Whooping Crane is the tallest flying North American bird. Then there is crane communication. The arrival of low-flying Sandhill Cranes in spring brings a cacophony of high-volume rattling unlike any other. Whooping Cranes emit a sirenlike hoot that can be heard miles away.

But the crane claim to fame is dancing. During courtship, cranes tiptoe on long skinny legs while flapping their enormous wings, all the while bowing and twisting, sometimes throwing beakfuls of grass into the air. Somehow, cranes maintain their grace throughout their mating routine, and like others bestowed with physical talent, make it all look easy.

Dr. George Archibald is co-founder of the International Crane Foundation ( Situated just north of Baraboo, WI, the Foundation’s headquarters is the only place in the world where one can meet all 15 crane species. Dr. Archibald’s limitless devotion to restoring and preserving crane communities around the world contributes mightily to thriving Sandhill Crane communities that extend even into Ozaukee County’s many preserves. The Foundation is working hard to create a Wisconsin home for Whooping Cranes, the most endangered of all cranes.

As our annual season of gratitude approaches, let’s be thankful for the work of the International Crane Foundation—and for the wondrous cranes that find bountiful respite here in Wisconsin.

Elizabeth G Fagan,, Lake Michigans Left Coast
Elizabeth G Fagan,, Lake Michigan’s Left Coast

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