Sanhill crane running in shallow water.

Sandhill Crane Redux: Part 1

This is the first in a three-part series on sandhill cranes exploring their history in Wisconsin, ties to Aldo Leopold, biological behaviors, and contemporary matters. The series first appeared in our Spring 2017 issue of The Leopold Outlook, entitled “Sandhill Crane Redux.” If you enjoy this article, become a member and get future issues of the magazine delivered to your mailbox!

As I write, a pair of sandhill cranes has just returned home to the marsh on my land in south-central Wisconsin, having spent the last three months wintering as far south as Florida. Their raucous calls echo through my valley as they court and reestablish possession of their breeding territory. Although the bugling of cranes has become an increasingly common harbinger of spring in the upper Midwest, it wasn’t always that way. The remarkable recovery of Midwestern sandhill cranes from the impending demise Aldo Leopold was anticipating in his 1937 essay, “Marshland Elegy,” is one of the great success stories of 20th-century conservation. And much of the drama is playing out on the very landscapes that inspired Leopold’s essay.

One of the six subspecies of sandhill cranes, the Greater Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis tabida) almost disappeared from the upper Midwest primarily because of unrestrained killing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The ongoing loss of wetland habitat that Leopold noted in his essay also contributed, but it was overkilling of the birds that nearly did them in.

The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.

That overkill was driven in large part by commercial market hunting that was a thriving enterprise in the late 19th century, providing inexpensive wild meat to growing populations of urban consumers. It was the same unregulated killing that drove the Passenger Pigeon to extinction in 1914. Sandhill cranes were hunted primarily because they are good to eat, the “ribeye of the sky,” as one crane hunter described their flesh. An additional motivation for killing them was their taste for the small grain crops that were expanding across the landscape. Hunted for food and persecuted as a crop pest, sandhill cranes declined rapidly because we killed them much faster than they could possibly replace the losses.

Etching depicting crane hunting during 1800s found in Leopold's journals.

Aldo Leopold saved this etching depicting crane hunting during the 1800s in his file on sandhill cranes. It had been published in Minnesota Conservationist in 1937 with the following caption, “Hunting sand hill [sic] cranes in a cornfield in the ’70s. Note the hunter in concealed in a shock of corn. Birds weren’t even given a sporting chance – and the slaughter was frightful!” Image courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation Archives.

The Greater Sandhill Crane disappeared as a breeding bird from Illinois in 1890, Iowa in 1905, South Dakota in 1910, Ohio in 1926, and Indiana in 1929, and it was nearly extirpated throughout the rest of the upper Midwest. Until that is, the protection conferred by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (which implemented the 1916 treaty with Canada).

These acts ended the uncontrolled killing and allowed cranes and other migratory birds to recover. Initially prompted by the demise of the Passenger Pigeon and massive declines in other migratory birds, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has remained one of the most enduring and effective of early 20th-century conservation measures. As we approach the centenary of that pioneering piece of conservation legislation, the sandhill cranes of the upper Midwest bear witness to its effectiveness. But in “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold wasn’t very confident that sandhill cranes would long survive even though they had been protected. He wrote of the approaching day when “…the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward…”

"Sandhill Crane Standing at Nest"

Sandhill Crane Standing at Nest is a painting by Wisconsin artist Owen J. Gromme, a contemporary of Leopold’s. This work is on display in the Leopold Center, courtesy of Roy and Susie Gromme.

By the 1930s Leopold had taken a great interest in the status of sandhill cranes, and he corresponded extensively with leading ornithologists throughout the crane’s shrunken range to find out what was known. He and his students, and colleagues like Owen Gromme, surveyed the wetlands in the sand counties of central Wisconsin where some of the remaining cranes were still breeding.

They reckoned that there were just a few dozen cranes in Wisconsin in the 1930s. Furthermore, fall counts of cranes at migration staging areas that attracted birds from around the region suggested that Wisconsin and Michigan were home to just a few hundred birds. In the early 1940s, for example, only around 150 birds were seen each fall at the newly created Jasper-Pulaski State Game Preserve in Indiana, where many of the cranes from around the upper Midwest congregated during their fall migration. Today, over 10,000 cranes visit Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in the fall.

So, how did the sandhill cranes make their comeback?  Continue reading the second installment of this series.

Feature photo, top, courtesy of George Nolte.

Did you know that each fall thousands of sandhill cranes gather along the Wisconsin River just behind the Shack? Book your viewing experience at our Crane Congregations tours!