The whooping crane (Grus americana) is the tallest bird in North America, and is probably one of the best-known endangered species on the continent. The body feathers are mostly white, but wing tips are black, which can be seen in flight. The crown and portions of the face lack feathers, which exposes red and black skin that can appear all dark in poor lighting conditions. A distinguishing feature for the whooping crane is their long black legs and black bill with a yellow-orange base.
Immature whooping cranes are mostly rusty or cinnamon colored during the first fall migration. After about four months of age, rust-colored feathers are increasingly replaced with white ones as the birds molt. Some rust-colored feathers are retained into a bird’s first spring. Immature birds achieve full adult white plumage late in their second summer.
Male whooping cranes approach 5 feet tall when standing upright and can weigh 16 pounds, females also reach 5 feet in height and average 14 pounds. The wingspan of the whooping crane is 87 inches. The whooping crane is the only large white bird, with a wingspan of over 7 feet that flies with neck outstretched and whose legs extend beyond its tail.
As with other endangered species, the saga of the whooping cranes’ survival is dramatic. The whooping crane is the rarest of the world’s 15 species of cranes. It is estimated that less than 1,000 individuals exist worldwide. About half of these birds migrate through Nebraska.
Historically, the breeding range stretched from Alberta through southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, northeastern North Dakota, western Minnesota, southern Wisconsin, northern Iowa, and northern Illinois.
Currently, there is only one wild (non-reintroduced) population of whooping cranes. This population of approximately 500 birds winters in southern Texas in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. They migrate along the Central Flyway to their breeding grounds within the Wood Buffalo National Park in northeast Alberta and southern portions of the Northwest Territories of Canada.
In addition to the wild population, four reintroductions efforts involving captive-reared birds have been attempted. Programs to re-establish a migratory flock in the Rocky Mountains and a non-migratory flock in Florida were unsuccessful. Efforts to establish a migratory flock that summers in Wisconsin and overwinters in Florida, as well as a non-migratory flock in southeast Louisiana, are ongoing. Despite intense dedication of conservation groups and agencies, no reintroduction program has achieved the goal of establishing an additional self-sustaining population.
While migrating through Nebraska, whooping cranes use the central Platte, Middle Loup, North Loup and Niobrara rivers and a variety of wetland habitats as stopover sites during both spring and fall migration.
Whooping cranes prefer shallow braided riverine habitats and wetlands for roosting. Nebraska is one of the only places where a considerable amount of time is spent in rivers. They use agricultural fields, wet meadows, marsh habitats, and shallow rivers for feeding. Whooping cranes typically select sites with wide, open views and those areas that are isolated from human disturbance.
Whooping cranes are omnivorous, meaning they will eat both plant and animal matter. In Nebraska, along the migration route, cranes eat aquatic plants and animals and waste grain in crop fields.
Whooping cranes typically lay two eggs, which are incubated for 31 to 35 days. Chicks leave the nest about two hours after hatching and are capable of running and swimming. The young remain within about 200 meters of the nest, although they do not return after hatching.
Historic records of the whooping crane’s home range size and population trends suggest that perhaps over 10,000 whooping cranes may have lived across North America. Between 1860 and 1870, the whooping crane population was estimated to be between 500 and 1,400 individuals. By 1942, the whooping cranes nearly became extinct with a migrating population of only 16 birds.
Population declines were caused by shooting and destruction of nesting habitat.
In 1970, the whooping crane was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List. Additionally, it is listed on the Nebraska Endangered Species list. Whooping crane populations are slowly increasing, but today there are still fewer than 600 whooping cranes in existence.
Management and outlook
Extensive habitat protection and management activities are continuing throughout the whooping cranes range. In Nebraska, efforts continue to be made to restore and protect roosting and foraging habitat along rivers used by whooping cranes during migratory stopovers. Wetland sites are being restored and created. Monitoring and survey efforts are underway to assess threats the birds face during migration and on the breeding and wintering grounds.
Education and outreach efforts help the public understand the importance of protecting this endangered species and the need for continued conservation of the wetland habitats on which they rely.
Whooping crane occurrences are most likely to take place in Nebraska during the spring migration from mid- March through the end of April and during fall migration from late October to mid-November.
Whooping cranes should not be approached or disturbed. If cranes become alert or stop foraging you are too close. Remain at least a half mile away and stay in your vehicle. If birds are disturbed and take flight, they may inadvertently collide with power lines or other objects, the leading cause of whooping crane death during migration. Report individuals who harass or disturb whooping cranes.
Allen, R.P. 1952. The whooping crane. National Audubon Society Resource Report 3,246 pp.
Gomez, G.M. 1992. Whooping cranes in southwest Louisiana: History and human attitudes. Proc. N. Am. Crane Workshop 6:19-23.
Howell, S. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.
McNulty, F. 1966. The whooping crane. E.P. Dutton & Company, New York, New York. 88 pp.
Nesbitt, S.A. 1982. The past, present, and future of the whooping crane in Florida. Pages 151-154, in J.C. Lewis, eds. Proceedings 1981 International Crane Workshop. National Audubon Society, Tavernier, Florida.
USFWS. 1994. Whooping Crane Recovery Plan. Albuquerque, NM.