A rare picture of a wild whooping crane taken by the author near his home in 2013--a photo that never could have happened if not for the work of the folks at ICF.

A rare picture of a wild whooping crane taken by the author near his home in 2013–a photo that never could have happened if not for the work of the folks at ICF.

There was a lot of talk about sex. Or reproduction, at least. No surprise, since our Public Affairs team at Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative was visiting one of the sexier outfits in our neck of the Wisconsin woods: Baraboo’s International Crane Foundation (ICF), the world’s leading center for habitat restoration and captive breeding of the world’s most alluring—and most threatened—birds. ICF is the only place on earth where one can observe a living specimen of each of the earth’s 15 crane species, 11 of which are listed in undesirable positions on the official too-close-to-extinction-for-comfort scale.

Our tour guide was Curator of Birds Bryant Tarr, the man responsible for the critical captive reproduction of birds at the heart of ICF’s ambitions to bring wild crane populations back from their current precarious perch on the cliff of existence.

As he walked us from pen to pen, where a series of pair-bonded (that’s husband and wife; cranes mate for life, which can mean up to 40 years or even more) cranes came out to greet him—or initiate a courtship, or take issue with that courtship severely as it turned out—it was clear to us that he wasn’t fibbing about working closely with most of these frighteningly lovely creatures for a healthy chunk of three decades.

The Siberian crane pair put on an especially spectacular demonstration of crane magnificence. While the female kept her distance mid-pen (mostly), the five-foot-tall (or so) male was immediately on edge at the sight of Tarr and marched to the fence-like barrier in front of him. A sort of stare-down ensued. Tarr, seemingly clairvoyant, recited for us an exact sequence of postures and threats that this crane then executed with military precision upon Tarr’s single step into the invisible violation zone between man and bird. Threat walk; drop crouch threat; S-neck 90-decible bugle; ruffle-bow threat; drop-wing threat; three stooges double-primary why-I-oughta threat, and so forth. I might have messed up the sequence and posture names (it all happened so fast), but you get the picture.

It was like nothing I, or any of us, had ever seen. In about ten seconds we came to understand what’s at stake if the world loses its cranes. It loses touch with nature’s greatest imagination.

No wonder so many cultures adore and celebrate cranes, some to the point of near-religion. Oddly, some cultures are literally “loving their cranes to death.” (Tarr’s words)

Trust me, I can’t adequately describe the magic we witnessed that day: the whooping crane’s ghostly predictions, the African crowned crane’s curious glance and sports-car plumage, the bugles of all the cranes like alarms from God’s cradle.

The work of the people of ICF warms my heart. It is kin to our work here at Organic Valley. To save a crane, as to save a family farm, one must first save the wetland, the land itself, to preserve the very possibility of living. We learned that is at the heart of ICF. Over the course of its existence, since 1973, the International Crane Foundation has built a wetland conservation network that circles the globe. The crane is a species without borders, with continent-scale migrations, so ICF’s agents reach out to governments as well as farmers and landowners to teach of the perils of irresponsible agricultural land use, of over-hunting (yes, people hunt cranes), of over-trapping for domestication as “pets,” of destruction of wetlands. They do this in Russia, China, India, Korea, Tibet, Africa, Europe, everywhere a flock is dwindling, which is, it seems, everywhere.

Godspeed, ICF, from us spellbound CROPPies. We will do our best to protect the wetland habitats on our farms as you fight the good fight for the future of these spectacular birds. Maybe someday soon, with a little good fortune, your threatened charges will alight in our pasture, step down to the marsh, bugle, dance, and, you know, hatch eggs.

For a glimpse of the majesty of cranes, and to learn more about the International Crane Foundation, visit their amazing website and consider visiting their “crane ambassadors” if you’re ever in Baraboo, Wisconsin.