At this time of year, one of the nation’s most exotic birds is nesting, and many wildlife lovers are rejoicing. Once close to extinction, the Eastern population of sandhill cranes has grown dramatically. In fact, their numbers are so big that they’re becoming a problem in some places – and there’s talk of starting a hunting season for cranes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sandy Hausman has the story:
At this time of year, one of the nation’s most exotic
birds is nesting, and many wildlife lovers are rejoicing. Once
close to extinction, the Eastern population of sandhill cranes
has grown dramatically. In fact, their numbers are so big that
they’re becoming a problem in some places – and there’s talk of
starting a hunting season for cranes. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Sandy Hausman has the story:
(Sound of marsh and birds)
It’s a cool spring morning, just before dawn. Brandon Krueger is watching a stretch of marshland along a country road in Central Wisconsin. Krueger works for the International Crane Foundation. He’s taking part in the annual Midwest crane count. Celebrating its thirtieth year, thousands of volunteers have fanned out across parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa to look and listen for sandhill cranes.
“It’s a great sound to hear when you’re waking up. This is usually the earliest that I ever get up during the year. It’s a real struggle, but it can be worth it – for some of the things that you hear and the opportunity to see cranes.”
(Sound of crane call)
Krueger hears a breeding pair a half a mile away – exchanging what’s known as a unison call. The birds are big – up to five feet tall. A hundred years ago they made easy targets for hunters. In the 1930’s, naturalist Aldo Leopold lamented the loss of cranes – nearly hunted to extinction in Wisconsin. He knew of only 25 breeding pairs of sandhills in the state. But the federal government made it illegal to hunt cranes, and the state started working to restore bird habitat. Today, crane lovers celebrate an impressive comeback.
“I’ve talked with our leading field ecologist and he’s estimated upwards of forty-thousand sandhill cranes in the Midwest area.”
This year’s crane count is still being tallied, but Krueger heard nine birds and saw three flying by.
(Sound of cranes)
In the county next door, Troy Bartz claims to see many more birds than that on a daily basis.
“I’ll come home and it’s nothing for me to see two, three-hundred cranes in a field in one crack.”
Bartz has been farming for 13 years – growing corn, soy beans and alfalfa on nearly a hundred acres near Nina Creek.
(Sound of plow)
“Plants started disappearing out of the field with crane tracks right next to them. They go right down the row and they pull the shoots out of the ground and eat the kernels off the roots. I lose thousands of plants every year.”
The International Crane Foundation says damage in Wisconsin alone could total $100 million, and for family farmers, a year’s profit could be lost.
Bartz: “On the small acreage that I’m tilling, you can’t lose thousands of plants and not have some kind of an impact. That’s hundreds and hundreds of bushels I’m losing.”
Hausman: “And what’s the cash value on that?”
Bartz: “I figure anywhere between two to three-thousand dollars minimum every year.”
Hausman: “So what do you think the answer is?”
Bartz: “Shoot ‘em.”
There is some talk of having a hunting season for cranes, but that would require approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many critics say the eastern population of sandhills is too small to permit hunting. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says there are alternatives for farmers – machines called banger guns that make explosive sounds every few minutes. Troy Bartz’ neighbor, Mel Johnson, tried that, but found the birds quickly got used to the noise.
“The DNR warden brought the guns out. He said the best way is to mix a few regular shells in with it, he said, because it won’t scare ‘em away, the guns. He’s been taking them out for years, and he said they won’t scare any wildlife away – them guns.”
They’ve also tried scarecrows and colored ribbons but they didn’t work either. Farmers have had success with a product called Kernel Guard – a pesticide that made corn seeds taste bad to cranes, but this year the manufacturer stopped making it because one of its active ingredients can be toxic. Crane advocates are now asking the EPA to allow use of another chemical that’s already sprayed on golf courses to repel geese, but approval is not expected this year.
(Sound of cranes)
So crane lovers are keeping their fingers crossed – hoping farmers won’t be breaking the law by shooting the birds.
For the GLRC, I’m Sandy Hausman.