Crystal Lake company goes to the birds

CRYSTAL LAKE – Sandhill Cranes are not the clients Dawn Gilman expected to serve when she got into the engraving business.

While the lanky Midwestern bird is not a direct client, Gilman’s engraving services have helped researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign understand everything from the crane’s nesting to migration habits.

Gilman, owner of Crystal Lake Engraving, connected with University of Illinois doctoral student Jeff Fox about four years ago to help him band Sandhill Cranes. Roughly 160 birds later, Gilman said it remains one of her favorite projects.

“I’m starting to wonder why I haven’t seen one of the cranes with our tags on their legs,” Gilman joked of all the tags she has made. “But I think it’s very exciting and wonderful to be a part of.”

Many of the birds get tags on each leg, one being a color and the other a combination of three numbers. Fox is able to record the color and number combination with the bird’s location and track where it may nest, if it comes back to the same area from migration and if it survives.

Fox said the tags have been an integral part of his study and having an engraver as close as Crystal Lake has been invaluable.

“Having them relatively close was fantastic,” he said. “I could drop off materials and they would hold on to them for me. Whenever I needed things engraved, I would just send an email or give a call.”

The material Gilman uses for Fox’s birds is much stronger than the material she uses for the badges, awards, plaques, building signage and gift plates she generally makes. She said the material used for banding is virtually impossible to destroy and would withstand any flight or conditions the birds experience.

Gilman said professional relationships with people such as Fox is what has kept her business going strong for 30 years.

“Repeating customers are probably 60 percent of our business,” she said. “You have an idea of what your target market is when you start a business but we had no idea there would be this kind of need.”

Gilman has served other businesses she never expected when she first started, including the Mall of America in Minnesota and helicopter companies. But she said she will always be most thankful for the birds for taking Crystal Lake and her company around the globe.

“I always say we have a product that migrates,” Gilman said. “Not many companies can say that.”

For more information about Crystal Lake Engraving, visit, or call 815-459-7877.

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