by Stan Tekiela
© 2003 NatureSmart
May 16, 2003
Most people are familiar with the stately Sandhill Crane. However, are you aware that we
have a second crane species in North America-the Whooping Crane. Of the 15 species of cranes in the world, the Whooping
Crane (Grus americana) is the rarest of all cranes.
Cranes exist on five of the seven continents of the world. (Only Antarctica and South America don't have any crane
species). And the crane family is one of the most threatened families of birds in the world. Compared to the Sandhill
Crane, the Whooping Crane is easy to identify. It is an all white bird with jet-black wing tips. It also has a striking
bright red crown and face with a large, dull yellow bill and very long black legs.
The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America. They stand five feet tall and have a seven to eight foot
wingspan. Their wingspan is equal to or slightly longer than the more familiar Bald Eagle. Despite their large size,
they only weight about 10 to 15 pounds.
With their extremely long wings, the whooper can fly up to 50 m.p.h.. To take off, they typically run into the wind
with their wings outstretched. Whooping Cranes fly with their necks outstretched straight in front. Compared to
the Great Blue Heron and Great Egret, which hold their necks in an "S" pattern while in flight. In addition the crane
has a distinctive wing beat. Their down stoke is slow followed by a quick "flicking" up stroke. Cranes often fly
in a V formation but they also soar on thermals (updrafts of warm air) that can lift them to altitudes as high as
3,000 and 5,000 feet. Once they reach this altitude they glide forward, slowly losing altitude, looking for the next
thermal to repeat the ride over again.
Whooping Cranes become sexually mature at 4-6 years of age. They can live 25 or more years and it's believed that
they will mate for life. A mated pair will hold and defend a territory of 30-50 acres. Once established the pair will
construct a shallow nest on the ground where the female will lay only two eggs. Both parents will take turns incubate
the eggs for approximately 30 days. Usually both eggs hatch but rarely do both chicks survive. Hatching coincides with
the emergence of insects. Like many bird species, insects make up a large part of the diet for the growing and developing
Chicks are cinnamon brown at birth, which helps to camouflage. They start to get their white feathers in the second
and third year. They need to grow quickly in the first summer to be strong enough to make their first autumn migration.
Young cranes learn the migration route by following their parents. After returning with their parents the following
spring they join bachelor flocks of non-breeding birds until they are old enough to breed.
During the mid 1800's the Whooping Crane population was estimated to be 700-1500. Their numbers dropped dramatically
in the late 1800's due to loss of nesting habitat and unregulated hunting. By 1938 only two small flocks remained and
by 1949 only 15 birds remained in one flock. Ambitious recovery efforts were started in 1954 when the breeding grounds
of the remaining few wild cranes was discovered in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
Many years and much effort later, in the fall of 2001, the first flock of reintroduced Whooping Cranes departed Necedah
National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and began a 48 day, 1,218 mile migration to Florida. The flock spent the winter on
the Gulf coast and this spring the small flock safely made the return flight to Wisconsin giving hope that someday the
Whooping Crane will no longer be an endangered species.
Until next time...