Photos by (L to R): Ryan Hagerty-USFWS/CC BY 2.0 | International Crane Foundation/CC BY 2.0 | Steve Gifford/CC BY 2.0  

About the Whooping Crane

The whooping crane (Grus americana) is one of just two crane species found in North America. As the tallest flying bird in North America, it stands five feet tall and has a seven to eight foot wing span! Adult whooping cranes are entirely white in color except for black legs and feet, black wingtips, black facial markings, and a red patch on their head. Juvenile whooping cranes are a mix of white and cinnamon brown coloring. Its North American relative, the sandhill crane (Grus candensis), is smaller than the whooping crane and gray-brown in color. While in flight, both species of cranes have outstretched necks and legs which helps distinguish them from wading birds like herons and egrets which fly with their necks tucked into an "S" shape. Both male and female whooping cranes perform mating displays which feature head bobbing and jumping up and down, and these birds have a distinctive trumpeting bugle which is louder than the call of the sandhill crane. Learn more about how to identify a whooping crane by its behavior in this Field Guide to Crane Behavior from the International Crane Foundation. Whooping cranes may live up to 25 years in the wild and mate for life. Females usually lay two eggs, but often only one chick will survive.

The whooping crane is thought to have once been found throughout much of North America, and is believed to have numbered between 700 and 1,500 birds in the 1800s. By the 1940s, however, the migratory population had dropped to 16 individuals due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting and was reduced to one naturally occuring, migrating population. Today, thanks to protection from the Endangered Species Act since 1973 along with efforts from a number of agencies across North America to implement the Whooping Crane Recovery Plan, the total number of both wild and captive whooping cranes has reached 600 (as of Feb 2015, USFWS). One partnership which has impacted this great recovery effort is the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. This group of government and non-profit agencies is working to establish a self-sustaining eastern migrating population of whooping crane. Each year, captive-hatched cranes in Wisconsin are reared and trained to survive in the wild and they are flight-trained to follow a light sport aircraft along a migration route south. Once the cranes have made the trip south following the aircraft, they are capable of an unassisted return migration the following spring.     
 
 
Photos by (L to R): Gabe Giffin-LDWF/CC BY 2.0   |   USFWS/CC BY 2.0 

Keeping Whooping Cranes Safe Project

While recovery efforts for the whooping crane are encouraging, self-sustaining populations are not yet secure. Keeping Whooping Cranes Safe is a project of the International Crane Foundation designed to  reduce human-caused mortality of whooping cranes. Sadly, shootings account for 19% of known adult mortality in the reintroduced population in the eastern states. While a few of these were mistaken for legally-hunted birds, it appears that vandalism is the root of the majority of the 10 cranes shot during 2012-2014. This is especially alarming because of the slow rate of growth of the whooping crane population. The Keeping Whooping Cranes Safe project is striving to create communities that care about the cranes, especially in areas where whooping cranes are most at risk. The project is also seeking to increase negative consequences for harming whooping cranes.

What is Alabama's Role in Keeping Whooping Cranes Safe?

More than one third of the eastern migrating whooping crane population spends part of their winter in and around Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Alabama. Sadly, two of the documented whooping crane shootings over the last few years have happened in this area. To prevent further harm to the population, the International Crane Foundation is working diligently to promote awareness of the whooping crane and create a sense of pride that these rare birds choose to spend part of their winter in Alabama. You can be a part of this effort by learning more about whooping cranes and how to identify them. If you are a hunter, be sure not to confuse the whooping crane for the snow goose. Check out the great infographic below:

A larger version of this ID Guide is available from savingcranes.org

Another way to learn more about whooping cranes and promote their conservation is to attend events like the Festival of Cranes held in January at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Invite your friends to go and see the great crane viewing opportunities and participate in fun activities throughout the weekend. While you are in the area, drive over to Joe Wheeler State Park and enjoy even more wildlife viewing opportunities while you stay in one of the beautiful cottages or a great lodge room! 

TEACHERS! The International Crane Foundation provides free activity guides for your classroom! You can also contact them about their great Crane Trunks that are full of even more learning tools! Encourage your students to learn about how they can be a part of conservation in Alabama!

Additional Resources & Links:

International Crane Foundation
Operation Migration
Journey North

 


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