Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cranes leave the nest but find new dad

By David Horst

FREMONT, Wis -- For a short time on a recent Sunday, I felt a little like Father Crane.
It was a natural reaction to the following situation.
Chuck leads crane #302

I am running through a cut hay field. My arms are … well … flapping.
Running behind me are four sandhill cranes. I begin to separate from them and one or two of the cranes open their 5-foot wingspan and float up and over my head, landing slightly in front and on either side of me.
It sounds like I’m describing some strange nature lover’s dream – and it would be a good one – but this was reality. As pleasant a reality as it might have been, it was not what we wanted to have happen.
We were on a dead-end farm road south of Fremont to release these young cranes back into the wild so they could link up with their peers before the migration south. They had been in the care of The Feather Rehabilitation Center near New London, which is to say they were in the care of Pat Fisher. She is a one-woman nonprofit operation.
The cranes had come to her from around the state, not injured but kicked out of their nests, probably by their siblings.
Female sandhill cranes typically lay two eggs, though normally only one of the young makes it to maturity. It may be predation of the egg or young bird by skunks, raccoons, foxes or coyotes. Or it may be the smaller of the two coming up short in survival of the fittest.
Nature may be beautiful, but she often is not kind.
Fisher cared for them until it was time for them to rejoin the crane world. That’s what was wrong with my dreamlike scene. They were perfectly happy to hang with us.
We had arrived as a caravan of three vehicles. My wife and me followed Fisher and her faithful volunteer Chuck in her minivan, whose cargo was four tall, thin wooden boxes emitting peeping sounds. The third vehicle carried my invited guests, Marlene and John Konsek. The Konseks are nature buffs of the first order. They travel the country, and the world to view birds or further the cause of turtle migration.
We were joined quickly by family and neighbors of the farmer whose land we were using. We had met a week earlier when releasing two cranes. One of those – #302 – was back with us again. He had been hanging out at a busy trailer court on the Wolf River, shunned by the other cranes but crying for the attention of the people walking by.
That won him a second ride in the box, after Fisher picked him up and brought him home again.
Staff members from the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo had affixed leg bands to the cranes. The maroon bands with white letters on their left legs allow them to be identified from a distance. Fisher encouraged anyone who spots them to report their location to ICF at (608) 356-9462 or through
We unloaded the four boxes and lined them up at the edge of the field. With the rapid shoosh from the sliding exit panels being lifted simultaneously, we expected a dramatic four-way fly-off. What we got was four big birds gradually sauntering out of captivity and checking out the shoulder of the road.
We tried shooing and lunging and yelling, but the young sandhills barely stepped aside. We could run at them without effect. That’s when I decided to run away from them, in hopes they would follow.
They did, but they kept following.
The others tell me I was quite a sight running through the field. My wife decided aloud that my native name was “He Who Runs with Cranes.”
I tried leading them toward a large flock of cranes. I tried hiding behind trees. I tried appearing threatening. Still my young crane charges stayed with me, none closer than #302.
Defeated, I walked back to the road, still a crane dad. Chuck took over, leading the birds deep into the field and then vanishing into the standing corn and emerging near the road so we could make a quick escape.
Fisher checked back on the cranes several times. She found #302 walking down the middle of County H and picked him up again. She has found a new home for him. 
No. 307 was hanging out back at the farm. The family agreed to report its movements to Fisher. It was spending part of the day there, but leaving at dusk. The other two also visited at times, but none has been spotted since last Saturday.
The second bird from the first release, #301, apparently joined a flock right away and has not been seen.
“So they should all be OK,” Fisher said. “We should have four out there, hopefully in the air to the south in a few weeks. I sure hope they all go south.”

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