Making The Nature Scene: Baraboo’s International Crane Foundation has all the cranes

The wildlife-protecting juggernaut is reopening in May after a major renovation.

The wildlife-protecting juggernaut is reopening in May after a major renovation.

Illustration by Maggie Denman. Crane photo by Ted Thousand, courtesy of International Crane Foundation.

In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.


It’s not unusual to see feathered dinosaurs walking near Madison lakes, strutting on their oddly jointed legs and flying over area wetlands like they own the place. And they kind of do. Sandhill cranes are one of the oldest known bird species—fossils as old as 2.5 million years have been found. Oftentimes, you can hear their jarring, presumably dinosaur-esque calls. But as recently as the 1980s, spotting wild cranes was rare in Wisconsin. Populations of Wisconsin’s two native species—sandhill and whooping—have rebounded in the region, along with other cranes across the globe, with the help of the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo. 

The ICF has been closed due to COVID-19, but is planning a phased reopening on May 1. It’s a long-awaited event: the organization, which has been the powerhouse for all things crane protection since 1973, originally closed its doors in 2019 for a $10 million renovation. ICF Managing Director Darcy Love kindly gave me a preview tour of the new landscape last week. It was a sunny, slightly breezy day. Eye-widening calls from each of the 15 species of cranes provided a soundtrack for the adventure.  

The nearly 300-acre headquarters near Baraboo, which the ICF has called home since 1983, sits on the site of a former—and de facto organic—dairy farm. Majestic cranes have universal appeal and have been significant in mythology and art of many cultures. People around the world associate prosperity, loyalty and messages from the gods with the Grus genus. 

“Cranes are global ambassadors—they don’t recognize [man-made] boundaries,” says Love. “We work toward that common goal of preserving the environment and improving quality of life, not just for the birds, but for the people who share the landscapes with them.”

Part of the renovation included adding ponds for each crane exhibit that didn’t already have one. The ICF aims to give the birds, which typically live 20 years or more and mate for life, the highest quality of life possible. The organization also increased the size of some enclosures and added murals of the cranes’ native territories for educational context. Tranquil pastoral scenes of India, Bhutan, Japan, and Africa show cranes living harmoniously with humans. The ICF’s mission is not only to protect cranes, but to support education and conservation by working with experts in each species’ habitat. Aside from the Baraboo headquarters, the ICF maintains a regional base in China, as well as shared program offices with partner organizations in Cambodia, India, South Africa, Texas, Vietnam, and Zambia. Its staff of nearly 80 works with hundreds of specialists in more than 50 countries on five continents.

A newly constructed courtyard centers around a fountain with a silver sculpture of two red-crowned cranes dancing to strengthen their pair bond. This sculpture, along with five cranes in different stages of flight that line the walk to the welcome center, were created by Richard Van Heuvelen. The Ontario-based artist has a fascinating connection to the ICF. In the early 1990s, he flew an ultralight plane to guide a small flock of reintroduced juvenile whooping cranes on their first migratory flight to a wildlife refuge in Florida. When the ICF opens again, the water for the fountain will be turned on.


Nearby, three giant copper prayer wheels, crafted by a fifth-generation family of artisans in Nepal, animate the movement and dancing of cranes when in motion. There’s also a new visitor center, built with wood from Peshtigo and surrounded by prairie plants, trees and shrubs native to Sauk County. 

Helping cranes bounce back

Cranes have been threatened and faced extinction in the United States for over a century, in part from over-hunting. Sandhill cranes have been called “ribeye of the sky.” Yeah. Whooping cranes were hunted to near extinction in part for their feathers, a popular addition to women’s hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act gave the cranes some protection. In addition to hungry hunters and milliners, agriculture and infrastructure have destroyed cranes’ wetland habitats in Wisconsin and around the globe. Power lines are also dangerous for cranes, who fly in and out of their nesting area at dawn and dusk, when light is low. 


The ICF’s facility includes a breeding facility for 100 birds, mostly the endangered whooping crane. There were less than 50 whooping cranes in the wild in 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was passed. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 826 whooping cranes in the wild as of February 2020, the latest available data. There are just 85 in a flock that migrates from Wisconsin in warmer months to Florida in the winter. 

Crane City, as the breeding facility is known, inseminates birds and incubates eggs—mostly whooping crane—for reintroduction into the wild. The whooping crane population was so low in the 1980s that geneticists stepped in to match the right cranes, either naturally or artificially. Most species of cranes lay just two eggs each year. Often, only one will survive. In the 1980s, biologists from the U.S. and Canada started collecting one fertile egg each from nests they found with two fertile eggs. Then they would put the fertile egg in a nest that had no fertile eggs. They stopped in the 1990s because it was no longer necessary. The ICF still tucks some viable whooping crane eggs in other species’ nests for natural incubation, which yields better results. 

Cranes, like all creatures, rely on a healthy ecosystem to thrive. The ICF has been not only protecting and breeding cranes, but also protecting ecosystems, watersheds, and flyways since 1973—in Wisco and around the world. Advancing conservation and training the next generation of leaders is part of ICF’s mission. An internship with ICF is major goals. 

There are more than two miles of restored prairie and forest hiking trails at the ICF, as well as some portions of rare, pristine remnant prairie—a type of habitat that has escaped cultivation and other human intervention. Remnant prairies are home to plants that won’t grow elsewhere. Trails include birding and forest walks, great for a little wander on a sunny day. The ICF’s dedication to land conservation and restoration improves biodiversity, water quality, erosion mitigation, and supports native species. “And it’s beautiful,” Love notes. 

So, if you want to marvel at the feathery splendor of cranes and nature, and all of the tremendously important work the ICF is doing around the world that I’ve provided the smallest snapshot of in this column, it’s about an hour away from Madison proper. Tip: if you’re approaching on Highway 12 via 90, try not to turn left into UPS before you get to Shady Lane Road. It’s very anticlimactic! Also, those backwards crane leg joints are actually their ankles, so they’re walking on their foot bones. Impressive! And when you hear two nearly simultaneous crane calls, know that the more unison they have, the stronger the pair bond.  

The ICF is taking reservations for visits in May and June. The main exhibit area has paved ADA-accessible trails with gentle slopes. The walking trails are not paved and have more topography.

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