Known as: Whooping Crane, Whooper, flying sheep, big white crane, white crane, Grue blanche
Estimated numbers left in wild: 437
Of the two species of cranes in North America, the whooping crane is the largest, standing 1.5 meters tall and possessing a wingspan of 2.3 meters. The adult cranes are almost entirely white, with a splash of red and black on the head and black primary flight feathers. The bill is red and black and the legs and feet are black. The whooping crane can be distinguished in flight from herons as it flies as the bird carries its neck stretched out (herons curve their necks back towards the body in an ‘s’ shape).
Diet: Whooping cranes are omnivorous and will eat fish, reptiles, small mammals, aquatic plants, grain, and molluscs. These birds are not at all fussy in their diet, and rely upon waste grain from fields to provide food while they are migrating.
Breeding: Some whooping cranes are permanent residents on the Gulf Coast, but many others migrate from the Gulf region to breeding grounds in Canada or Wisconsin. Nests are constructed in marshy areas, and a clutch of up to 2 eggs will be incubated by both parent birds. Generally, only one of the chicks will survive to migrate. The young birds are cared for by the parents for 1 year, and are actively fed for 6 to 8 months. During this time, the young learn not only how to hunt for food from the parents, but also the migration route. The young cranes have cinnamon coloured feathers that gradually turn to the white plumage of the adult birds.
Location: The traditional nesting grounds of the whooping crane are greatly reduced due to habitat destruction. Migrating cranes have been using a marsh in northern Canada for breeding, flying to the southern part of the United States for the winter.
A new breeding ground has been established now in Wisconsin with birds that had been raised in captivity. These cranes are then guided down to winter quarters by the use of an ultra-light aircraft, which the birds follow down to Florida. Parks where whooping cranes overwinter generally restrict access to these rare, but recovering, birds.
Threats: The whooping crane came about as close to total extinction in the 1930s that it is possible for a species to experience – only about 15 cranes remained alive. The cranes had not only been mercilessly hunted, but their eggs were collected, and nesting and wintering grounds were destroyed through development.
There are predators that will attack and eat either chicks or adult cranes, too, and these include bald and golden eagles, lynx, foxes, wolves, bobcats (a serious threat in Florida), and black bears.
Conservation efforts: In order to save this beautiful bird from extinction, the efforts of the Canadian and American Wildlife Services were put into play. All hunting and egg collecting is illegal and refuges to protect breeding, resident, and migratory populations have been established. Very good results have also been produced from captive breeding programs – eggs are incubated, hatched, then raised with the use of whooping crane disguises so that the young birds will identify with their species.
The use of aircraft to guide the young cranes to wintering grounds along with introducing them to established crane populations before migration has begun teaches the young whooping cranes how to get from breeding grounds to wintering areas and back again without problem. Cranes are heavily monitored for their protection. As some of the Gulf wintering areas are adjacent to wind farms, these facilities are shut down immediately when cranes appear in their vicinity.
International Crane Foundation
The International Crane Foundation works to protect cranes around the world and their habitats including the Whopping Crane.