Appreciating Crane Time

SUNDAY, JUNE 3, 2007

Sunday’s tour started bright and early. The sun was shining, and the tour was the first of the summer timetable with an 8:30 a.m. start. The topic was the Effigy Mounds Culture, but the tour began with some modern day residents making a bid for attention. As we headed from the Visitors Center, a group of turkeys strolled across the parking lot making their way from Longenecker Gardens to Curtis prairie. It was a group of males, all sporting the whisker-like projections with the easy to remember name of beards. The turkeys were in no hurry, and we lingered on the grass in front of the prairie to admire the metallic sheen of the feathers and note that the evolutionary connection between birds and dinosaurs is easy to comprehend when you watch a wild turkey walk.

The turkeys turned out to be merely the opening act to an even more unexpected performance when a Sandhill crane pair made their entrance from around the side of the Visitor Center and ushered their baby across the parking lot and into the prairie. I had heard from several visitors that there was at least one young crane around, but I hadn’t seen it so far. The cranes moved casually but were not quite as accommodating as the turkeys in terms of lingering for photo ops, perhaps because of the young crane with them. Luckily, they moved slowly enough to allow for several of the camera wielding visitors to get closer for pictures.

The adult Sandhill cranes are large slender grey birds with a distinctive bustle of feathers that can be seen from a distance. At the Arboretum you can usually get close enough to see the splash of red on their heads as well. The young crane was a uniform brown color and crossed the parking lot shepherded between the two adults.

The tracks of these two large birds are similar, but if you get a clear track you will find that the rounder toe pads of the turkey show in the track and the toe that projects to the back (toe one in track books) will more often register (show in the track) for the turkey than for the crane. Of course, a similar large track in wet mud by ponds may be left by a great blue heron. Like herons, cranes feed on amphibians but also tend to roam on dry lands in search of small mammals and insects as well as plant tubers and grains to round out their diet.

Turkeys prefer a more strictly vegetarian diet feeding on seeds, fruit and nuts, with a particular fondness for acorns. I have seen turkeys rooting in the ground, so I suspect that they, like the cranes, may eat underground stems and corms as well.

We did want to get to the mounds on Sunday, so once the cranes had moved into the vegetation of the prairie, we moved off down the firelane toward he woodland admiring the white baptisia and spiderwort along the way. At the edge of the remnant trail, there was a large patch of Canada anemone. But as we moved into the woodland, we left the blooms behind. There were plenty of ferns, shrubs and interesting seed pods to appreciate, but most of the woodland wildflowers had already finished blooming. Unlike their prairie neighbors, woodland plants need to cope with the light blocking canopy of tree leaves and, therefore, do their energy demanding blooming while the canopy leaves are still small.

Unfortunately mosquitoes seemed to have replaced the wildflowers. Although they were less of a problem as we moved away from the damp areas, they were a good reminder that summer is here and insect repellant is a good idea.

We made our way through Gallistel Woods to Wingra Woods stopping to view the mounds in each and talk about the Woodland Culture that created them. Of course, you can never truly define a group of people, but in order to communicate information, labels are often assigned. Speaking anthropologically, the Woodland Culture spanned from 800 B.C. to 1200 A.D. and is separated into Early, Middle and Late Periods.

The Early Woodland people built the earliest mounds, which tended to be conical and contain bundles of human remains. Possibly the mound building concept originated as burial monuments. Later, linear mounds were built, and, eventually, in the Late Woodland Period from 650-1200 A.D., effigy (shaped) mounds appeared.

There are over 700 mound groups in Wisconsin. There is evidence that 7-10,000 mounds were built from around 800-1100 A.D. Dane County has the highest concentration of effigy mounds, over 1,500 in the four lake area. The Arboretum is home to a bird and two panther mounds as well as conical and linear mounds, but effigy mounds exist elsewhere in the state and surrounding states in the shape of many different animals as well as some that seem to represent human forms.

The bird mounds with wings outstretched are obvious in shape. It is generally believed that “panther” mounds represent water spirits since that fits with what is known about the beliefs of cultures that came after the Effigy Mound builders. Panther mounds like the ones at the Arboretum do seem to be built going into or coming out of water, often with the body indicating a spring.

It is also possible that there are many things represented in mounds that appear to be random shapes or even simply linear. As one visitor pointed out some of the mounds that are labeled “turtle” have long bodies and long tails. Archaeologists base their concepts on what is known about past and present cultures and continue to learn as new connections and new discoveries are made, but it is difficult to know the exact nature or purpose of things left by cultures that have preceded ours.

There were some good questions raised and points made. Were the mounds kept clear of brush and vegetation or were they allowed to simply “go back to the land?” It is possible that this may have varied with each specific mound.

Mounds could represent clans or boundary markers or could have been built as part of seasonal rituals to honor spiritual beings, the people themselves, and the land that sustained them. As one visitor pointed out, perhaps one reason they were built was to have a lasting representation of the people’s existence. Whether the work was done for the real time benefit of bonding people or honoring spiritual beings or marking territory or was actually meant as a lasting monument for their children, grandchildren or a completely different culture in the far distant future, like our own, we can benefit by appreciating them and the people that built them. It is interesting to learn about other cultures, both ancient and modern, the same way it is interesting to learn about the animals and plants we encounter.

The Arboretum’s mounds were built about 800 A.D., and by 1000 A.D. effigy mounds were no longer being commonly constructed. One current thought is that as people became more agricultural and began planting corn, their practices and culture changed. There had been people on the land for many years before those that have been given the name Effigy Mound Culture by archaeologists lived here, and many types of people have lived on this land since. It is interesting to note that according to sources I’ve read, cranes have been walking the land and flying the skies since the late Miocene, over 5 million years ago. Perhaps we can feel more connection to “ancient” cultures when we put our time in the cranes’ perspective and realize that in the cranes’ terms, the mounds were built only a wing flap ago.

If you are interested in finding out more about Effigy Mounds, cranes or any other Arboretum topic there are many good books to be found at the Arboretum bookstore!

Susan Simonson, Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.