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A Central Wisconsin Love Story

by Joe Riederer 
Copyright © 1999 Big Bluestem Press


The two had been together for three years and would stay together for the rest of their lives. To the scientist, it was nothing more than a pre-programmed, biochemical response. Love was a word for the poet. This was how it had to be and any talk of emotions just muddied the picture.

    As they walked through the tall grass of a Central Wisconsin September, swallows gathered in large flocks on the telephone line. Somewhere to the east, a truck hauling potatoes to a processing plant in Plover downshifted loudly. To the west, sandstone hills towered over the otherwise flat landscape. The sights and sounds of late summer meant nothing to them. They focused on only one task, preparing for the long trip back to Texas. A leopard frog darted between them. She missed it, he didn’t. With an archer’s precision he grabbed the startled frog just behind the front legs and swallowed it whole. A stretch of wings, a short run, and the pair of cranes flew to another field.

Sandhill cranes had been coming to Central Wisconsin for thousands of summers. Parents showed the way to their offspring, and the cycle continued. If culture is the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next, crane culture is surely as old as any on the continent.

    The mix of prairie, marsh, and pine barrens found here provided the diversity of habitat needed for cranes to raise their young. As agriculture expanded into the area, the cranes adapted. Their love of tender corn seedlings did not endear them to people trying to eke out a living by farming. At the same time, most people overlooked the benefits provided when the cranes ate grasshoppers, mice, and other crop pests. This area was a perfect place for cranes to spend the summer. It was not, however, any place for a crane to be in the winter.

    A ground-fog hung in the air as the sun climbed the eastern horizon. The chill of the morning left no doubt that their time in the north was almost over. Feeding on corn that the combine missed, they stayed in sight of each other. Whether it was the scientist’s “instinct’ or the poet’s “love,” it didn’t matter. They had become a single functioning unit. Neither would be complete without the other.

    A flash of brown fur was the first thing he saw. This was followed immediately by his mate's bugling alarm and the dog’s angry growl. Next came the hot canine breath and a sudden loss of balance. The dog’s yellow teeth firmly grasped the large bird’s wing as they tumbled together to the ground. The kicks from the fragile legs of the crane were futile. His beak however, found its mark just above the dog’s eye socket. Stunned and in pain, the dog ran off with blurred vision and its tail firmly between its legs.

The wounded crane struggled to return to his feet. He kept one wing neatly folded. The other wing was bent out and forward, dripping blood. His mate, having taken to the air to avoid the beast, returned cautiously. Still wary of the danger that lurked in the farmyard nearby, she jumped into the air and flapped her wings, trying to encourage her mate to leave. This field was too dangerous for an injured crane. He too jumped into the air, but could only move one wing. Both the poet and the scientist would have agreed that cranes were able to feel pain.

Their first need was cover. They slowly made their way from the cornfield to the adjacent stand of jack pine and scrub oak. She flew over the barbed-wire fence. He tried, but instead only managed to scrape himself on the rusty steel. A second try, this time more of a hop than a flight, got him over to the other side and to safety.

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Page last updated: Thursday, March 17, 2011