"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
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?
The Whooping Crane
The Whooping Crane is the most famous endangered bird in
North America. In part because it is large, distinctive, and photogenic and
partly because, since 1967, Canadians and Americans have cooperated in a
successful recovery program to safeguard it from extinction.
The adult Whooping Crane Grus americana, is the tallest North American bird. It has a long neck, long dark pointed bill, and long thin black legs. A large male is about 1.5 m tall. In the air, the wings measure 2
meters or more between the tips of the long black primaries, or flight feathers, which cannot usually be seen when the bird is at rest.
|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
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 favourable, 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 m above ground, and then begins
spiraling upwards 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
In flight, Whooping cranes can be distinguished from other large white birds by the 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, and Lesser Snow Goose. All three species are mostly or entirely white but, in flight, none has long legs trailing behind.
Each fall, the only naturally occurring Whooping cranes migrate south
from Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park to their
traditional wintering grounds in Texas at the Aransas National Wildlife
Refuge. The birds spend the winter feeding and resting. Wintering Whooping
cranes prefer blue crabs and several types of clams, but they also eat crayfish, small fish, snakes, insects, acorns, and small wild fruit.
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. The breeding pairs begin arriving in northern Wood Buffalo National Park during the third week in April,
where each pair establishes a territory.
Breeding & Nesting
Whoopers usually build a nest in marshes or shallow ponds, in about 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 and terrestrial predators, such as the gray wolf, are able to penetrate the cranes' nesting marshes.
The incubation period is 29Ė 30 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 orange young hatch during the last week in May or the first week in 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 perhaps find larval forms of insects such as dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies, and also 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.
By the end of September or early October the young birds are ready to try their wings on the 4000 km migration to the Texas winter range. On the way south, the birds spend one to five weeks feeding in their staging (stopover) areas in Saskatchewan. In these areas, undisturbed whoopers may spend the entire one- to five-week staging period on the same quarter or half-section of land. Here the birds fatten up on waste barley and wheat in stubble fields, and roost during the night in nearby wetlands.
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 180 in late 1999. 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.
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
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.
Agencies and Non-Profit Organizations joining forces to
safeguard the rarest crane in the world.
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
The Founding Members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Include:
International Crane Foundation
Since it's founding in 1973, the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a non-profit organization, focuses attention on the conservation of the world's 15 species of cranes. Through its programs in education, research, field ecology, captive propagation, and reintroduction, ICF helps to ensure the survival of cranes and their habitats throughout the world.
ICF will have an active role in the reintroduction of an eastern migratory population of Whooping cranes. The new flock will be released in Wisconsin and taught to migrate to Florida. ICF will educate the public about the reintroduction effort through outreach programs and on-site tours.
The ICF Crane Conservation Department will provide expertise in rearing chicks for release, and monitor the health of the new flock. The ICF Development Team will participate in securing funding for this project.
Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
is a non-profit organization that promotes the knowledge, enjoyment, and
stewardship of Wisconsinís natural resources by providing educational
programs and financially empowering grassroots as well as professional
environmental programs. We help a variety of DNR programs in need of private
sector support, but actively fundraise for selected major projects, like the
whooping crane recovery effort. We are committed to raise start-up funds for
the projectís first three years to help construct facilities and purchase
equipment critical to the projectís success.
United States Fish and Wildlife Service
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
Canadian Wildlife Service are given the responsibility by law to recover endangered species. The service will facilitate a diverse partnership of federal, state, and private organizations whose common goal is to establish a second migratory flock of Whooping cranes in the eastern states.
Additionally, the service has a primary responsibility for operations at the Wisconsin release site
(Necedah National Wildlife Refuge) and the Florida wintering site
(Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge).
As part of the overall team, the service is also responsible for flyway states coordination, budget development, and project outreach and communications.
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center of the U. S. Geological Survey provides research support to client bureaus in the Dept. of Interior, including the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other clients in the United States. Patuxent is located in Laurel, MD on 12,800 acres of land managed for a diversity of mid-Atlantic habitats.
Patuxent raises about two-thirds of all Whooping cranes for release to the wild, and will supply a substantial number of cranes for the Wisconsin-to-Florida release project.
Patuxent will also provide research and logistical support for the Wisconsin release. This support will include rearing Sandhill and Whooping crane chicks conditioned to follow ultralight aircraft. Patuxent will ship these chicks to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin for continued ultralight training.
USGS National Wildlife Health Center
The USGS National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) is a Federal diagnostic and research laboratory under the Department of Interior. The Center's focus is on prevention, detection and management of wildlife disease for the benefit of free-living wildlife. Efforts are concentrated on animals under Federal stewardship such as migratory birds and mammals, endangered species and animals on Federal lands. NWHC was established in 1975 and is based in Madison, Wisconsin. Center staff provide diagnostic and research services nationwide and internationally. The Center has provided veterinary consultation, diagnostic services, collaboration on health risk assessments and disease research in support of the crane project.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) is the
State agency charged with managing Wisconsin's environment; from fish and wildlife to air, water, land, and outdoor recreation.
Wisconsin was the first State to officially partner with the Whooping Crane Recovery Team (WCRT) and the
US Fish & Wildlife Service in the effort to establish an eastern-migrating population of Whooping cranes. The WCRT chose Wisconsin as the summer nesting site.
The state maintains and manages a portion of the wetland complex that will support the Whooping crane flock, and has supplied much of the environmental data used to assess the suitability of the Wisconsin site where the cranes will be released. The DNR is also funding the
project coordinator's position and is providing many staff and department resources to the project.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is a private, non-profit organization established by Congress in 1984 to benefit the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants, and the habitat on which they depend. Its goals are conservation education, habitat protection and restoration, and natural resource management. The Foundation meets these goals by creating partnerships between the public and private sectors, and strategically investing in conservation projects.
The Foundation awards challenge grants in which awarded seed funds must be matched with additional funding. The Foundation's challenge grants not only increase dollars directed to conservation, but also increase organizations dedicated to conservation. The Foundation facilitates cooperation and buy-in from diverse stakeholders by creating partnerships among federal, state, and local governments; corporations; private foundations; individuals; and non-profit organizations.
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Project Background Info
Whooping Crane calls
Flight (223kb wav)
Sandhill Crane calls
Unison (259kb wav)
Flight (227kb wav)
Vocalizations courtesy of Dr. Bernhard Wessling