I am beginning to see small groups of sandhill cranes flying overhead. Soon the numbers will increase and large sedges (AKA flocks) of cranes will be seen in our farm fields during the day and marshes and river bottoms at night.
Back in the 1920’s a sandhill cranes was rarely seen east of the Mississippi River. A bird count in 1930 revealed only 15 nesting cranes in central Wisconsin, mostly around the Babcock area. This area was later devastated by wildfire burning some 500 acres.
During the early 1900’s, Wallace Grange worked in game management with the former Wisconsin Conservation Department (now the Wisconsin DNR) as the state's first superintendent of game management and for the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as a biologist. After the 1930 fire, he and his wife began to acquire burned out land thought to be nearly worthless with the intent of building a game farm. During 1937 they built an 8-foot-tall fence around what was to become the Sandhill Game Farm in southwestern Wood County near Babcock. Although the farm focused on deer, Grange noted nesting pairs of sandhill cranes on the property and a small gathering of cranes each fall. He began experiment with improving crane habitat.
What is now known as the Sandhill Wildlife Area proved to be good habitat providing good predator protection in the marshes and good forage in the surrounding farm fields. Our great sedges of sandhill cranes today are due to large part to the work of the Granges, a great wildlife success story.
Sandhills are huge, with a wingspan of up to 7 feet. I often hear their loud trumpeting calls echoing in the early morning air. The call almost seems prehistoric. It likely is as a 10-million-year-old crane fossil in Nebraska may well be a sandhill.
They are migratory birds returning to the same location for breeding each season. For several years we have seen a mating pair near our home and are able to follow the growth of their one yearly brood of colts (AKA chicks) through the summer. During the fall, their territorial nature wanes and they begin to congregate in larger and larger sedges. During the day they feed in farm fields then fly to the safety of marshes in the evening. Once snow covers our fields, they begin the trek south stopping opportunistically to forage.