Baraboo, Wis. — Two American ornithologists are conducting a little grassroots diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union. Their envoy? The crane.
The graceful, long-legged wading bird has promoted cooperation between other countries as well: West Germany, Japan, South Korea, and India.
The diplomatic missions originated in Baraboo at the International Crane Foundation (ICF), an organization founded in 1972 by two ornithology students at Cornell University. Both were working on doctoral theses about cranes - George Archibald on crane behavior and Ron Sauey on the ecology of Siberian crane nesting areas.
The scholars realized that not much was known about these birds, and that 7 of the 15 existing species of cranes were endangered. So began the International Crane Foundation - ''on a shoestring,'' Dr. Archibald says. ''We had no idea where our next dollar was coming from.'' Mr. Sauey's parents agreed to lease them a vacant horse farm for a dollar a year; hence the foundation's headquarters in Baraboo.
ICF built up its financial resources through grants and donations. Spurred by foundation-sponsored events such as crane watches, membership picked up.
Today the ICF is ready to move to new, 160-acre headquarters in Baraboo and has established a sister foundation, Vogelspark Walsrode, near Hannover, West Germany. There are ICF branches in Japan and South Korea.
Archibald first visited the Soviet Union in 1976 and traveled to China in 1979, working with scholars of both countries to set up ICF centers.
Three years after Archibald's visit to the USSR, the Soviets began constructing a center similar to the one in Baraboo, at the Oka Natural Reserve 190 miles south of Moscow. Since then, 14 eggs of Siberian cranes, which the Soviets gathered from wild nesting pairs, have successfully hatched. These fledglings will form the nucleus of the Soviet's breeding and restocking program.
In 1979, Archibald visited China as the guest of that country's leading ornithologist, Dr. Tso-Hsin Cheng, at the Institute of Zoology in Peking. Many of Dr. Tso's colleagues had been sentenced to hard manual labor during the Cultural Revolution and were still ''catching up'' when Archibald arrived.
Archibald hoped to alert the Chinese to the plight of the crane and the ibis (a chiefly tropical bird related to the heron) in neighboring countries. He also encouraged the Chinese to initiate basic field research and conservation, especially for Siberian cranes and Japanese crested ibis.
Archibald visited China again last July and is currently working to design a Chinese center at the Zha Lung Natural Reserve. The design for Zha Lung, notably different from the other ICF centers, will be constructed for an entire ecosystem, not just cranes.
The Baraboo ICF also helps the new centers in other ways. When the eggs hatched in the USSR, the parent foundation supplied pelletized feed until the Soviets could formulate their own. Incubators and medicines also were dispatched from Baraboo and Vogelspark.
Not content with his efforts in China and the Soviet Union, Archibald this year visited India to help a colleague organize the Indian Crane Center (ICC). Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her family, who hosted a tea for Archibald during his visit, expressed support for the incipient ICC and interest in Archibald's other ideas.
While there, Archibald started planning an International Crane Workshop to be held in February 1983 at Keoladeo, India. Sixty-five researchers from 23 countries are expected to attend.
The crane, one of the oldest species in existence, traditionally has been a symbol of good luck and happiness for people of Africa, Asia, and Europe, he says. Archibald, whose enthusiasm and love for these beautiful birds has transcended the barriers of language, politics, and geography, is convinced that the international cooperation fostered by ICF will help people of different cultures better understand one another.