The story of the whooping crane plays out like a Hollywood script: it starts with tragedy, continues with struggles toward redemption, and ends with renewed hope and dreams for the future.
It all started in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, as habitat loss and hunting drastically reduced the whooping crane population. Before human interference, there were believed to be 15,000-20,000 whooping cranes, which fell to ~1400 in 1860 and then plummeted to an all time low of 15 birds in 1941. All signs pointed towards the end of the whooping crane.
The 15 surviving whooping cranes all belonged to one flock that migrated between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Conservationists worked with local, federal and international governments to protect the flock and encourage breeding. Their efforts paid off slowly as the numbers reached 57 by 1970 and 214 by 2005.
Although the success of the flock was encouraging, scientists realized that they could not depend solely on one group of birds. What happens if a national disaster struck or the flock became sick? First, biologists tried to introduce whooping cranes in Idaho but after several years, the population crashed and disappeared. A year-round, non-migratory flock of whooping cranes were introduced in Florida and they became successful. However, the Florida whooping cranes never learned to migrate.
As it turns out, the future of the whooping cranes was tied to a small plane. Creating a new migratory flock of whooping cranes required teaching young chicks how to migrate without the assistance of adult birds. The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team decided to use an ultralight aircraft as a teaching tool to show the young whooping cranes how to fly from western Florida to Wisconsin. The program has proven very successful and as of October 2009, there are 77 whooping cranes that follow a plane from Florida to Wisconsin and back each year.
Whooping cranes are still critically endangered, but there is reason to be hopeful. Innovative scientists, like those from the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, are thinking of new ways to protect this fragile species and make sure that the story of the whooping crane does not end on a tragic note.
Description: Whooping cranes are almost entirely white. The body and wing feathers are a bright white, except on the tips of the outer wings. The tips of the primary feathers are black.
The most noticeable characteristic of the whooping crane is the large red patch on the head. The red patch extends from the cheek, along the bill and over the top of the head. The red patch is made of skin and is almost featherless.
Whooping cranes have yellow eyes and thin, black legs.
Size: With a height of approximately 5 feet, whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America. They stand taller than most children! Whooping cranes have a 7 ½ foot wingspan. They are lean birds, which despite their height, weigh only about 15 pounds.
Diet: Whooping cranes are omnivores. They primarily eat crustaceans, small fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles. They’ll also eat grains, marsh plants and acorns.
Typical Lifespan: They can live above 20-25 years in the wild.
Habitat: Whooping cranes like wetlands, marshes, mudflats, wet prairies and fields.
Range: Researchers believe that whooping cranes once bred throughout the Upper Midwest and northwestern Canada and they wintered along the Gulf Coast near Texas.
Today, there are two migratory populations and one non-migratory population of whooping cranes:
Natural Migratory Flock - The largest flock is also the only natural flock. It spends winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.
Non-Natural Migratory Flock – This flock winters at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and breeds in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.
Non-Migratory Flock – The non-migratory flock was formed in Florida as a reintroduction program. They live near Kissimmee in Florida year-round.
Communication: Whooping cranes call with a loud, trumpeting bugle. It is louder and more defined than the sandhill crane. In flight, they also call with a deep trill.
Whooping cranes perform elaborate displays to attract mates. Both the males and the females jump up and down, bob their heads, flap their wings and call loudly.
Life History and Reproduction: Whooping cranes begin to look for mates and form pair bonds while they are still at their winter feeding grounds. When choosing a mate, the cranes dance around, flap their wings and call to a potential mate. The pair bonding continues as they fly to the breeding habitat in the north (the non-migratory population finds a mate and breeds in the same general location).
At the breeding location, the pair mates and together they build a nest. They lay 1-3 eggs (usually 2), but normally only one baby crane survives. Both parents take care of the egg and the young crane as it develops. The juvenile crane becomes pretty independent early on, but still receives food from its parents. The juvenile stays with its parents throughout the first year, including the flight back to the wintering grounds.
Whooping cranes are elegant flyers and are able to utilize wind and thermal gusts. If a crane catches a strong gust of wind, they can ride it for a good distance without flapping their wings.
Threats to Whooping Cranes:
Whooping cranes are listed as Endangered on the Endangered Species List.
National Wildlife Magazine Articles:
The Art of Helping Wildlife
Endangered Species Act Success Stories (PDF)
International Crane Foundation
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
International Crane Foundation
International Crane Foundation - Population Statistics (PDF)
Colorado Division of Wildlife
Texas Parks and Wildlife
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Cornell University's All About Birds