The Whooping Crane
"For the Whooping crane there is no freedom but that of unbounded wilderness, no life except its own. Without meekness, without a sign of humility, it has refused to accept our idea of what the world should be like. If we succeed in preserving the wild remnant that still survives, it will be no credit to us; the glory will rest on this bird whose stubborn vigor has kept it alive in the face of increasing and seemingly hopeless odds."
--Robert Porter Allen
The Whooping Crane
This larger than life bird has become the icon for endangered species, is one of only two cranes found in North America. The Whooping Crane has suffered major population decline due to habitat loss and over-hunting. The population fell to only 15 individuals in the 1940s. Whooping Cranes were classified as endangered in 1967.
The adult Whooping Crane (Grus Americana) is the tallest North American bird. A large male is about 5 feet tall (nearly 1.5 meters). A 60-million year old species and one of the few living relics of all that vanished, Pleistocene-era megafauna. In the air, the wings measure 7 feet or more (2 meters+) between the tips of the black primaries, or flight feathers, which cannot usually be seen when the bird is not in flight.
The juvenile bird has dark brown eyes upon hatching, which change to light blue, and finally yellow as the bird matures. Plumage is reddish-brown. In adults and juveniles the primary wing feathers are black.
At close range, the adult Whooping Crane is an imposing bird, with stark-white feathers; short, black bristle like feathers on the crown and face, and a small black patch on the back of the head below the crimson crown.
Whooping cranes take their name from their distinctive whooping call. During the early spring courtship, a pair of birds may perform a duet, or unison call. A nesting whooper frequently bugles loud and clear during the early morning hours. This sound carries over several kilometers, and it is used by the adults to advertise their breeding territory to other whooping Cranes. Adult birds at the nest use a purring sound referred to as a contact call to communicate with newly hatched chicks.
When the weather is good and the winds favorable, a migrating Whooping Crane flies like a glider, on fixed wings. The bird spirals upwards (aided by thermal activity), glides down, dropping as low as 70 meters above ground, and then begins spiraling upward again. This spiraling and gliding, carried out when the cranes encounter suitable thermal updrafts, is energy-efficient and allows the cranes to fly nonstop for great distances.
In flight, Whooping cranes can be distinguished from other large white birds by its long neck extended forward and legs that trail equally straight behind. Whooping Cranes communicate vocally with each other even while flying, using flight calls. Birds often confused with the Whooping Crane are American White Pelican, Tundra Swan, Wood Stork, and Great Egret.
(WCEP file) credit ICF
Whooping cranes are omnivores, which mean they consume plants, seeds, and grain, as well as small fish, frogs, snakes, and insects. The winter diet of a Whooping Crane consists mostly of blue crabs found along the Gulf coast.
Courtship, Breeding & Nesting
In early spring, while still on the wintering grounds, pairs of cranes whoop and dance as part of courtship. Dancing intensifies until the migrants depart, usually in mid-March.
Whoopers usually build a nest in marshes or shallow ponds, in about 10 inches (25 cm) of water (the flightless chicks can swim to escape predators) and most often in relatively dense stands of bulrush.
A pair usually has two eggs. Both eggs generally hatch, but if both eggs are left in the nest, usually only one chick survives. The reason for this may be related to a food shortage, particularly when wet areas begin to dry out, allowing terrestrial predators, such as the gray wolf, to penetrate the cranes' nesting marshes.
The incubation period is 29– 33 days and both parents share the task of incubating the eggs in the nest. Few eggs are lost to predators thanks, in part, to the vigil of the adult birds. The reddish-brown young hatch during May or early June. From then on, the parents are kept busy feeding their chicks.
During the summer, the cranes rarely fly. Some birds may be incapable of flight during short periods due to the molt of major wing feathers.
Family groups frequent the shallows of small ponds and marshes, where the adults forage for larval forms of insects such as dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies, as well as snails, small clams, water beetles, leeches, frogs, and small fish to feed their young. When the parent birds kill larger prey, such as snakes, mice, small birds, ducklings, and even birds up to the size of half-grown bitterns, they share the spoils of these hunts with their young.
Threats to Whooping Cranes
It is believed that approximately 1,400 whooping cranes existed in 1860. Their population declined because of hunting and habitat loss until 1941 when the last migrating flock dwindled to an all-time low of 15 birds. The wild flock has slowly increased to over 300 currently. This flock winters in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf coast of Texas. In spring, they migrate north, nesting in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border of Alberta and Northwest Territories in Canada. This flock of whooping cranes is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world. Scientists have long recognized the risk of having all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and breeding location.
With all the wild birds concentrated in one small area, the population could be wiped out by disease, bad weather, or human impacts. Whooping crane survival depends on additional, separated populations.
Other threats include vandals and power lines. 20% of the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes have been shot, a disappointing statistic given the effort put forth by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to establish this important flock. And during their first independent northward migration, two of the 2013 whoopers were killed when they collided with power lines in Kentucky.
International Whooping Crane Recovery Team
The Whooping Crane Recovery Team (WCRT) is the governing body charged with responsibility of the species. Consisting of ten members: five Americans and five Canadians the team of ornithologists and biologists provide policy recommendations to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. Primarily, the team plans actions to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo natural flock and to establish two additional flocks in efforts to safeguard the whooping crane from possible extinction.
The team's efforts to establish a non-migratory Whooping crane flock began in Florida in 1993, using cranes hatched in captivity. In September, 1999, after searching for the best possible location to establish a second migratory flock, the team recommended that the flock be taught a migration route with central Wisconsin as the northern terminus and the west coast of Florida as the new wintering location. The WCRT sanctioned Operation Migration's ultralight-led migration technique as the main reintroduction method.
Our Whooping Crane Story
We are often asked why we dedicate our time and effort to save Whooping cranes. The answer is simple for us: As aviators, we have a love for the creatures that taught us the art of flying. Now that they need our help, how can we refuse?
To assist in carrying out this monumental reintroduction effort, several government and non-profit organizations have joined forces with Operation Migration and now comprise the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).
Visit the WCEP website
Government Agencies and Non-Profit Organizations joining forces to safeguard the rarest crane in the world.
Operation Migration is proud to be a founding member of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.