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For the love of cranes

On Saturday, April 8, beginning at 5:30 a.m., thousands of volunteers spanning more than 90 counties in six upper Midwest states took part in the International Crane Foundation's Annual Crane Count. Volunteer counters in Polk County verified a total of 48 cranes this year. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

St. Croix County

One of the rewards of living in the St. Croix River Valley is the cacophony of sounds that accompany the arrival of spring in the valley. Many of those eagerly anticipated sounds are the songs of birds. Ranging from the red-winged blackbird's simple twill so synonymous with misty mornings on the marsh, to the bossy beeking of the trumpeter swans patrolling a local river or lake, nothing lifts spirits faster after a long winter's sleep.

One of the truly distinctive sounds of spring is the prehistoric squawking of the Sandhill Crane. For a bird that stands nearly 5 feet tall, a Sandhill can move like a feathery ghost in and out of wisps of fog along the banks of marsh as easily as it blends seamlessly into long landscapes of last seasons cut corn.

Volunteers relish that early April morning every year, when cradling a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate, they glass the landscape in hopes of seeing or at least hearing cranes. Each person is bound to the next across thousands of miles united in purpose to observe and count Sandhill Cranes.

The Annual Crane count began as a survey conducted by concerned volunteers in Columbia County, WI in 1976. They were looking to identify locations utilized by cranes and get a sense of just how many cranes there actually were. Two years later by 1978, the survey had expanded to include a total of five counties in Wisconsin attracting more volunteers and collecting more data.

In 1981, the International Crane Foundation (ICF) teamed up with the Wisconsin Wetlands Association to expand the count into 34 counties. The foundation standardized procedures and rather than conducting the count over several weeks, it was held on one day at a designated time. 760 volunteers spent the day documenting sightings and calls.

By 1985 more than 2,000 volunteers counted more than 6,000 cranes spread across 67 counties accounting for almost the entire sate of Wisconsin. The Crane Count had become a model of public participation focusing on research, education and conservation.

Today the Annual Crane Count sends thousands of volunteers into their local wetlands and prairies throughout 90 counties across portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and practically all of Wisconsin. In 2005, in addition to the Sandhill Crane, the recovering Whooping Crane was added to the count.

Volunteer counters in St. Croix County verified 110 cranes this year and counters in Polk County verified 48 cranes this year.

Individual county coordinators provide maps and educational materials to volunteers. The count takes place between 5:30 a.m. — 7:30 a.m. in early to mid April each year. Participants use a simple online application to enter their field data into a database managed by the International Crane Foundation. More information including Historical data, results and how to volunteer can be found on the ICF web site at