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Whooping Crane

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

July 31, 2017

This spring I had a wonderful opportunity to film a pair of Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) that had set up shop and was nesting in a small cattail wetland on private property. When I arrived I was able to quickly ascertain the best vantage point of the nest from a nearby grassy hill overlooking the wetland. I set up my longest lens on a tripod and hid myself in the tall grass with a great vantage point to observe the coming and going of the pair of cranes.

In wildlife photography it is important to remain at a respectful distance if you want to capture nature behaviors and not disturb their normal daily activities. So I settled in for a long wait in hopes of capturing some images of this pair of endangered birds. The Whooping Crane is a five foot tall bird with snow white plumage and a deep red cap and black wing tips. It is the tallest bird in North America and also one of the rarest birds in North America.

Due to over hunting and lack of regulations (laws) Whooping Cranes were nearly driven into extinction with only about 20 individual birds left in the 1940’s. This is another classic example of how people have gone too far and also their misunderstanding of nature. But thanks to strong laws enacted to protect and preserve these birds along with a captive breeding program combined with a unique program to teach the young cranes to migrate by following a human-powered ultra-light aircraft we now have about 250 Whooping Cranes in the wild in the eastern half of the country. Another 250 or so Whoopers are also found in the western half of the country. 

While capturing some images and high definition video of the Whooping Cranes, I was entertained by all the wildlife in the wetland. As one point, one of the cranes had flown off and was gone for a while. When it returned it first landed a fair distance from the nest and started to slowly walk back towards the nest. As it moved across the wetland, something amazing happened. All of the Red-winged Blackbirds that are also nesting in the wetland started to dive bomb the crane.

Filming the attacks of the red-wings made me laugh. Here is the tallest most stately and rare bird in North America being picked on by a pesky tiny common bird. The Red-wings would land on the back of the crane and peck at its feathers. The crane would make some evasive maneuvers but nothing seemed to stop the attacks. When the crane had walked far enough to get out of one Red-wings territory the neighboring Red-wing would take over and continue the assault. Meanwhile all I could hear in my head was the old comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s saying “I don't get no respect”. This is what I imagine the crane was thinking as it endured the onslaught of blackbirds.

I also started thinking of the black-birds as bullies. When you think of a bully, a large dim-witted person comes to mind. Someone with more brawn and brains. Or perhaps these days’ cyber bullies seem to be more common. Someone who hides behind their computer screen and keyboard and lashes out at people in a pathetic attempt to make themselves feel better about their own failures.

However there really aren’t any bullies in the natural world. To look at the Blackbirds attacking the Whooping Cranes as a bully isn’t correct. The Black-birds aren’t doing this to inflict needless pain or suffering as a bully would do. They are actually trying to protect their young babies by driving off the Whooper. You see, the Whooping Crane, along with Sandhill Cranes, Great Blue Herons and other large birds will take Red-winged Blackbird eggs and babies right out of their nest and eat them. So there is a very real threat represented by the crane towards the Red-wings. So it is in the Red-wings best interest to help the crane to move along when walking through the wetland.

Unfortunately the Whooping Crane eggs were taken by a Raccoon thus ending the nesting. This is more than just a tragic ending for these birds but it's a real setback for the overall population of the cranes in the eastern half of the country. Every failed nesting attempt by the Whooping Cranes strikes at the heart of the recovery of our tallest bird in North America. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.


Photo by Stan Tekiela

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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