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Whooping Crane

(Grus americana)

State Status: being reintroduced

Federal Status: endangered

Whooping cranes disappeared from Wisconsin many years ago. But, with the help of biologists; the whooper's cousin, the sandhill crane; aircraft; and older, experienced cranes to teach young whooping cranes how to migrate to Florida; a population of whoopers established in Wisconsin is continuing to grow. In fact, 2006 marked the first year that whooping cranes hatched in the wild in the Midwest in over 100 years! For more information on this large, rare bird, read on. You can see some whoopers and learn about the Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project in this all about whoopers video.

The whooping crane is one of the world's rarest and most interesting birds. Whooping cranes have been around for several million years. They once lived in an area from central Canada, south to Mexico, and from Utah to the Atlantic coast, including southern Wisconsin. Biologists think that in 1865 there were between 700-1,400 whooping cranes in North America. Early explorers and settlers recorded whooping cranes in six Canadian provinces, 35 U.S. states, and four Mexican states.

Whooping Crane

The whooping crane population dropped quickly when these shy birds lost their habitat to settlers who began to use the land for farming. At the same time, hunting and egg collecting were also affecting the crane population. By 1938, only two small flocks were left. One group of birds was a non-migratory population in Louisiana. The other group was a population that migrated between Canada and Texas. By 1950, the Louisiana population was gone, and there were less than 20 birds in the migratory population. All of today's whooping cranes are descendants of those few migratory birds from Canada that survived.

Whooping cranes like water. They live nearly all of their lives in wetlands and prefer marsh habitat and the food that is found there. They are omnivorous (eat plants & animals). In the summer, in the northern part of their range, they eat mollusks and crustaceans, insects, minnows, frogs, and snakes. They also like to eat barley and wheat when it's available.

Along the migration route, cranes eat and roost in a wide variety of habitats like croplands, freshwater marshes, the edges of lakes and reservoirs, and submerged sandbars in rivers.

In winter, cranes hang out in estuarine marshes (where the sea meets the mouth of a river) and tidal flats in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, Texas, and the Atlantic coast. They like salt grass, cordgrass, and other aquatic plants. Whoopers eat blue crabs, clams, fiddler crabs, shrimp, and other aquatic invertebrates, small vertebrates, plants, acorns, snails, insects, and rodents.

 

The whooping crane is named for its loud "whooping" call. You can hear it for up to two miles! This amazing bugle sound comes bellowing out of the bird's long beak and 5-foot-long trachea! Cranes use their call to signal danger, to defend their territory, and to court potential mates.

Cranes doing a courtship dance

Adult whooping cranes look a lot like Wisconsin's native sandhill crane. Whooping cranes are the tallest bird in North America standing at 5 ½ feet tall. Adult whoopers have an amazing wingspan of 10 feet. They have pure white plumage (feathers) with black wingtips, black legs and feet, black facial markings, with a bare patch of red skin on their head. Males weigh about 16 pounds and females average 14 pounds. First-year chicks also have black wingtips, but their body feathers are light brown and white.

Young birds hang together in a "bachelor" or singles flock until they are 4 or 5-years old. They usually meet their mate on the wintering grounds. Whooping cranes mate for life and can live about 25 years. When nesting, a pair of birds pick a territory. They perform a fancy and elegant courtship dance, then mate. Females usually lay two eggs and both the male and female birds incubate the eggs. Incubation takes about 30 days. Even though both eggs may hatch, only one chick usually survives to reach fledging age when the chick has flight feathers. When bred in captivity, all eggs are usually incubated, and most of the time they all survive.

Whooper chick being fed by crane puppet

Today, whooping cranes are not in immediate danger of extinction, but disease, bad weather, and human land use decisions could affect them. As of spring 2008, there were about 360 whooping cranes in the wild in North America and 74 of these birds make up the eastern migratory population (the birds that migrate between Wisconsin and Florida). There are about 135 additional whooping cranes living in captivity throughout North America. These birds live at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin; United States Geological Society Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland; the Calgary Zoo in Canada; the Species Survival Center in Louisiana; and the San Antionio Zoo in Texas. The chicks released at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin as part of the whooping crane reintroduction project come from these cranes which are bred in captivity.

Young whooper spending the winter in Florida. Photo: © Operation Migration.

Because there was only one small population of whooping cranes left in the wild, people realized that any single event, such as a disease outbreak or natural disaster (like a hurricane), could wipe out all of the whooping cranes forever. Biologists decided that it was important to have additional crane populations established throughout the country. That way, if something happened to the cranes in one area, the cranes living in another area would still survive. Biologists began breeding whooping cranes in captivity and, in 1993, began releasing cranes into the wild in Florida. Without having any experienced cranes to teach them how, these cranes never learned to migrate. Today, this Florida non-migratory population is made up of about 37 cranes.
Juvenile whooping cranes in their pen at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge.

Juvenile whooping cranes in their pen at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge

Beginning in 2001, another population of whooping cranes was reintroduced. This time, biologists wanted to see if whooping cranes could be taught to migrate. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a group of government agencies and private organizations which Wisconsin DNR is a part of, joined together in an effort to create an eastern migratory population of whooping cranes. Cranes chicks hatched from captive bred cranes are brought to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge here in Wisconsin where they prepare for the migration down to Florida or other wetlands in the southeastern United States.

After spending the winter months in the warm, sunny south, the whooping cranes make the return migration north on their own. This population of whooping cranes that travels from Wisconsin to the southeastern United States and back is known as the eastern migratory population.

Every summer, chicks hatched in captivity are released at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where they go to

Cranes with a costumed biologist. Photo: © Operation Migration.

crane school. The young cranes are raised by costumed biologists so that they experience as little human exposure as possible. This way, the chicks will not imprint upon humans. Imprinting is a type of rapid learning seen in many species of birds. After chicks hatch, they become socially attached to the first moving object that they see. During imprinting, a chick learns its species' identity and its habitat preference.

The young whooping cranes prepare for migration in one of two ways. Some chicks learn to follow an ultralight aircraft. They are exposed to the sound of the plane s engine at an early age so they become accustomed to it. In fact, the engine sounds are played while the eggs are still incubating! Biologists wearing

Young cranes following an ultralight as they learn to migrate.

whooping crane costumes fly the ultralight aircraft. The ultralights play recordings of whooping crane calls and the cranes follow behind them. At first, the young cranes can only run behind the planes, but they grow very quickly and are soon able to fly in short spurts behind the aircraft. By the time fall comes around, they are able to fly for a much longer period and are ready to fly with the ultralights on their southward migration.

Biologists are also experimenting with another way that young cranes may be able to learn their migration route - by following older, experienced birds who have made the migration before. Once they are old enough to fly in the fall, chicks are released into groups of older whooping and sandhill cranes. These birds are referred to as "direct autumn release" or DAR birds. Just like the birds that are taught to follow the ultralights, these birds are also raised by costumed biologists until they are released into the wild.

Whoopers spending the winter in Florida at the Chassahowitska National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: © Operation Migration

On their journey southward, the young whooping cranes and the ultralight aircraft fly everyday that they can

Cranes, from the class of 2005, flying with the ultralight on their first migration to Florida
Cranes from the class of 2005 flying with the ultralight on their first migration to Florida.

(when the weather is good) and then land to spend the night. A team of biologists on the ground follow the plane and birds. They set up a netted area where the cranes will spend the night and have it ready before the cranes land. Sometimes they spend the night in public places like parks and nature reserves, and sometimes they spend the night in people s own backyards, if they have the right habitat.

When the young cranes make their first migration to Florida following the ultralights, the journey takes anywhere from 2 to 4 months. It can be a long journey for the biologists on the road and in the air. In the spring, when the whoopers make the return trip home on their own, it only takes a few days or weeks. Without the ultralights, the cranes are able to fly more efficiently by riding thermals and soaring, rather than expending energy flapping their wings to keep up with the airplanes.

Young whooper making its first trip to Florida
Young whooper making its first trip to Florida

On their own, whooping cranes migrate south in pairs, family groups, or as small groups of 3 to 5 birds. The cranes in the eastern migratory population leave Wisconsin for Florida, Tennessee and other southeastern states between late October and early December. After a long day of flying, they stop at any wetland that is available and usually continue flying the next morning, unless the weather is poor. In the spring, they leave their wintering grounds to return north between late February and mid-April.

For some great photos of the young whoopers following the ultralight aircrafts south and notes from the field biologists, check out the Operation Migration page.

These cute, little chicks are a sign of success for the whooping crane reintroduction efforts taking place in Wisconsin. Here are the first wild-hatched chicks at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge when they were a few days old. Photo: Richard Urbanek, USFWS.

The winter of 2007/08 was the seventh successful ultralight-led migration. Since the beginning of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership in 1999, there have been many accomplishments along the road to restoration. Of the 17 birds that followed the ultralights south for migration in the fall of 2007, two were from eggs that were laid in the wild and rescued from nests that were about to fail. One egg was laid at the Necedha National Wildlife Refuge and one was laid in Florida. In spring 2006, a major event occurred when the first whooping crane eggs were laid in the wild in Wisconsin in more than 100 years! One chick survived and has already completed two migrations south and back to Wisconsin.

The wild-hatched chicks at 9 weeks old. Photo: Richard Urbanek, USFWS.