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Answering The Cranes' Call: 40 Years Of Preserving Grace

Sep 8, 2013
Originally published on September 8, 2013 6:26 pm

Of all the world's birds, perhaps none are more mystical than cranes.

From Asia to North America, these tall birds with haunting cries have been woven into paintings, literature and folk tales. But today, 10 of the world's 15 crane species are threatened, and some are on the brink of extinction.

Their grass and wetland habitats are devastated all over the world. The International Crane Foundation, based in Wisconsin, has been studying and advocating for the birds for 40 years. George Archibald founded it with another young ornithologist on a family farm near Baraboo.

Archibald is still caring for cranes around the world. Speaking via Skype from a field expedition near Ulan Bator, Mongolia, he tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that "cranes are man-sized birds, most of them are 4 to 5 feet tall, they're monogamous, nothing they do is without grace."


Interview Highlights

On the characteristics of cranes

"The common denominator in cranes is that they are long-legged, long-necked birds with very big voices. Their voice can be heard for several miles on a still morning.

"When you see a marsh without cranes, it's very silent. When a crane is in a marsh, and they call, there's this great spirit that lifts up in that area and brings life and meaning to the whole place."

On crane recovery in Africa

"We're very concerned about the beautiful cranes of Africa, particularly the crowned cranes. They're being captured illegally and sent to the estates of the wealthy in the Middle East, and safari parks in China, and to animal dealers in Europe. We've had an 80 percent decline of the birds in East Africa, but we've had some successes, too. We have wonderful people working out there — Maurice Wanjala has established a community group to protect the cranes and the wetlands, and another guy, named Jimmy Muheebwa, in Uganda has actually restored some wetlands, and the cranes have come back."

On the cranes who winter in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea

"[It] has several valleys where about one-third of the world's red-crowned cranes spend the winter, and where about one half of the world's white-naped cranes — that's about 3,000 birds — spend the months of October, November and February and March. It's a wildlife paradise because it's a no-man's land. But unfortunately, there are plans afoot to develop the lowland zones into factories, to provide jobs for North Koreans through South Korean-built factories.

"As long as tensions remain high between North and South Korea, the cranes are fine. But should things soften, the South Koreans have all these development plans on the table."

On the appeal of cranes

"They're simply beautiful creatures, and they live a long time, they live 20 to 30 years in the wild, and in captivity they can live to the ripe old age of 60 or so. They breed very slowly, they lavish care on their young, which is a value embraced by many people — and they're about our size, in many cases, so we can identify with them.

"When you have beautiful things in your environment, you want to paint them, you want to make stories about them, you want to dance like them — cranes are one of the few birds that really know how to dance."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Of all the world's birds, perhaps none are more mystical than cranes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRANES)

LYDEN: That's the unison call of the red-crowned crane, a mated pair calling out to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRANES)

LYDEN: From Asia to North America, these tall birds with their haunting cries have been woven into paintings, literature, folk tales. But today, 10 of the world's 15 crane species are threatened, some on the brink of extinction.

Their grass and wetland habitats are being devastated all the world over. The International Crane Foundation is working to change that. Based in Wisconsin, the ICF turns 40 this year. George Archibald founded it with another young ornithologist on a family farm near Baraboo.

George Archibald is still caring for cranes around the world, and he joins us from a field expedition outside Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Welcome to the program, George.

GEORGE ARCHIBALD: Thank you very much. Thrilled to be with you all.

LYDEN: Well, we're so glad you could be with us from such a long way away. George, tell us a little bit about the species. What are these birds like?

ARCHIBALD: Cranes are man-sized birds. Most of them are four to five feet tall. They're monogamous. Nothing they do is without grace. The common denominator in cranes is that they are long-legged, long-necked birds with very big voices. Their voice can be heard for several miles on a still morning.

The Wisconsin environmentalist philosopher Aldo Leopold writing back in 1935 wrote so eloquently about cranes. And one of the sentences he wrote is: The silence discernible in some wetlands perhaps arises from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled adrift in history.

When you see a marsh without cranes, it's very silent. When a crane is in a marsh, and they call, there's this great spirit that lifts up in that area and brings life and meaning to the whole place.

LYDEN: What is the sound of the whopping crane?

ARCHIBALD: Woop.

(LAUGHTER)

ARCHIBALD: Really, that's what it sounds like. It's woop-doop-doop, woop-doop-doop, woop-doop-doop. And the doop-doop is the female, and the woop is the male. That's their duet.

LYDEN: Ah. And they also do this incredible mating dance, right?

ARCHIBALD: Yes. They throw sticks in the air, they jump high in the air, they run in circles, and they'll run side by side. Then they'll actually jump into the air, go for a distance, land and continue to circle and bow. And it must be quite exhausting.

LYDEN: I have visited the International Crane Foundation, and what you say about the stately graceful way these creatures walk really resonates. They all have this incredible, beautiful waltz of a walk. George, at the International Crane Foundation, you have, I believe it's an African grey-crowned crane with a big pouf on its head named Slidel. I believe this bird is from Kenya, a place where you've had some success at their restoration.

ARCHIBALD: Yes. They're from East Africa. We're very concerned about the beautiful cranes of Africa, particularly the crowned cranes. They're being captured illegally and sent to the estates of the wealthy in the Middle East and to safari parks in China and to animal dealers in Europe. We've had an 80 percent decline of the birds in east Africa, but we have had some successes too.

We have wonderful people working out there. Maurice Wanjala has established a community group to protect the cranes and the wetlands, and another guy named Jimmy Muheebwa in Uganda has actually restored some wetlands that were drained, and the cranes have come back.

LYDEN: Tell me about the cranes that live in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

ARCHIBALD: The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is about four kilometers wide and has several valleys where about one-third of the world's red-crowned cranes spend the winter, and where about one-half of the world's white-naped cranes - that's about 3,000 birds - spend the months of October, November and February, March. It's a wildlife paradise because it's a no-man's land. But unfortunately, there are plans afoot to develop the lowland areas into factory zones to provide jobs for North Koreans through South Korean-built factories.

As long as tensions remain high between North and South Korea, the cranes are fine. But should things soften, the South Koreans have all these development plans on the table.

LYDEN: In a sense, is it possible to talk about the health of the planet, the biodiversity that remains through the lives of creatures like the cranes?

ARCHIBALD: Oh, sure. Large vertebrates are very good indicators of the health of our environment, and cranes, particularly, because they require wide expanses of wetlands and grasslands. And if the cranes disappear, we know that something is wrong in that environment.

LYDEN: Why do you think that cranes are so revered culturally? I'm thinking of the Kimonos of Japan - you're on your way to Japan - I'm thinking of the thousand paper cranes, the symbol of peace at Hiroshima. What is it?

ARCHIBALD: Well, they're simply beautiful creatures, and they live a long time. They live 20 to 30 years in the wild. And in captivity, they can live into the ripe old age of 60 or so. They breed very slowly. They lavish care on their young, which is a value embraced by many people. And they're about our size, in many cases, so we can identify with them. And when you have beautiful things in your environment, you want to paint them, you want to make stories about them, you want to dance like them. Cranes are one of the few birds that really know how to dance.

LYDEN: And finally, George, I understand your own love of birds goes back to childhood, am I right?

ARCHIBALD: Yes. My first memory in life is crawling on my hands and knees in Nova Scotia on a farm after a mother duck and her brood. And I claim to have been imprinted in following birds ever since.

LYDEN: George Archibald is the co-founder and senior conservationist at the International Crane Foundation. He spoke to us from a field trip in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. George, thank you so much and congratulations.

ARCHIBALD: Thank you, Jacki. It's an honor to speak to you. And we invite everybody to visit us in Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.