In a small Wisconsin town, off some random numbered road without much signage or fanfare, is a small zoo with only one type of animal. It’s not exactly a huge tourist destination, but it has a dedicated base of supporters and is the headquarters for a huge conservation group. The International Crane Foundation of Baraboo, Wisconsin works to protect all cranes around the world, and their HQ is the only place in the entire world where you can go and see all 15 species of crane. For many, this might seem unexceptional or even laughably boring. Not me.
This past September I made my second trip to Baraboo to see the cranes. After speaking so highly of it in 2022, my wife was an enthusiastic (or at least willing) tagalong this time around. The two of us spent over an hour walking around the site, watching their introductory video, looking through the gift shop, and marveling at the thoughtful work of so many.
The staff at ICF have gone to such lengths to make it a delightful visit in the smallest of ways: by the entrance is a list of all species of birds that can be found on their property and adjacent hiking trails. Each year they offer ways for visitors to come in for free, and collect canned goods for their local food shelf. They don’t just acknowledge the cultural legacy of cranes, they embrace their home cultures through the display of prayer wheels, prayer flags, statues and other artwork. Each species has an adjacent mural depicting their homeland. The two blue cranes on display even have a habit of standing next to the pair of cranes in their mural. I suppose they’re comforted by the company.
Cranes themselves are also marvelous creatures to see. Spread out across five continents, many of the species are endangered and hard to see in the wild, so coming across them in such close proximity is a very special experience. It’s hard to describe the graceful and goofy way they move their legs, their necks, their wings, as they dance and trumpet and feed and preen. In 2022, the star was certainly the sarus crane, one of my all time favorite birds. The world’s tallest flying bird, the sarus is indigenous to Southeast Asia and has an imposing regal silhouette. Hanging over my bed is a portrait of two sarus cranes, and the real thing did not disappoint. I also loved spending time with the demoiselle cranes, one of whom eagerly came up to the chainlink fence and seemed to want to investigate me.
The great thing about zoos, refuges, aquariums, etc., is that you’re never going to have the same experience again. So this time around, we saw all kinds of different things. Lucy was most excited to see the whooping cranes, as I’d told her about the unique ways conservationists use costuming, puppetry, and tape recorders to rear them in captivity. However, right next to the whoopers was the surprise star of the day: the Siberian cranes. Their plumage is a gorgeous stark white, and one fully submerged its head in water for a snack while the other gracefully stood in the breeze. As we were preparing to leave, we even got a short clip of one trumpeting: throwing its head back and forth as it calls up to the sky. Beautiful birds with beautiful (if unnerving) songs to sing. Lucy also loved the small and adorable blue cranes, with soft shaded feathers and beady black eyes.
My biggest disappointment of the day was not seeing much from the sandhill cranes. Sure, they’re the least “special” birds on the property, because every Autumn Wisconsin is swarmed with wild sandhill cranes. But that only makes them feel more closely tied to Baraboo, a spot right in the heart of their habitat range that fights for them. I’ve said before, and will surely say again, that the sandhill crane is Wisconsin’s rightful state bird. Leaving Wisconsin having only seen one sandhill briefly isn’t ideal. But it also reinforced my feeling that I need to come out sometime and see them in the wild myself. A few hours east of the Twin Cities would be all it takes for me to ID a crane in the wild for the first time. For now though, I’m happy with my annual visit to the crane capital of the world.
What else is there to do in Baraboo? Well, it’s right next to hopping tourist destination Wisconsin-Dells, which offers tons of summer tourist activities such as waterparks, entertainment, boat tours, and even a lavender farm. That farm is on our list for our next trip, which we hope to make earlier in the year. It might require us to see the cranes a bit earlier in the morning, since we were sweating in the September sun this time around, but the area clearly comes alive during peak warm weather season. One thing we did that I highly recommend is visit Mr. Pancake, a local breakfast joint with a unique vibe and warm service. They make a maple honey cinnamon syrup in-house that was absolutely lovely.
Some pancakes, some waterslides, maybe a nice hike and giving some time and money to a global bird conservation effort. What better use could you have for a weekend? In fact, you really only need that last bit. Lazy rivers are great but they’re nothing compared to appreciating the elegance of a white-naped crane in a little pocket of Midwestern nowhere. It was a lovely weekend and I will surely be returning for more next year.