Whooping Crane Whooping Crane
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Tom Stehn

Photo Heather Ray

March 3, 2005

Dear Journey North,

The whooping crane flock is still about 4 weeks away from starting the migration. I flew yesterday to count the birds, but had the flight shortened by the approach of thunderstorms in mid-afternoon. The birds are patiently waiting for northern Canada to lose its coating of ice and snow so that in early May they can build their nests and forage in small marsh ponds. The nesting area is in a huge wetland complex surrounded by boreal forest in Wood Buffalo National Park. It's located in the Northwest Territories of Canada--2,400 miles north of their wintering grounds here at Aransas NWR in Texas.

The Story of the 217th Crane

Last fall, one juvenile whooping crane on its first migration south separated from its parents during the migration. Private citizens reported seeing this bird in Colorado and in Oklahoma during November on its migration south. It spent the winter with sandhills about 70 miles northeast of the whooping crane winter range at Aransas. How did it know where to go? Since it had separated from its parents, it had no travelling companion to show it where all the whooping cranes go for the winter. It simply followed sandhill cranes that came to Texas. Migration in cranes is a learned behavior from their parents; whooping cranes are not programmed to come to Aransas by genetics. They are brought here by their parents. This juvenile whooping crane was a record 217th bird in the flock.

A Prediction

I expect this particular juvenile whooping crane will get a head start on the rest of the flock. I expect it to start migration in the next week or so when many of the wintering sandhill cranes will head north. Nearly half a million sandhills will congregate on the Platte River in central Nebraska in mid-March. (Click on the Crane Cam at the link.) By the time the Aransas whooping cranes get to the Platte River, most of these sandhills will already have headed on northwards. The solitary juvenile whooping crane will know to navigate back to Wood Buffalo National Park where it will meet up with other whooping cranes this summer. It thus could follow a whooping crane to Aransas next fall, or else may end up wintering in a different part of Texas if it chooses to spend time with sandhills. However, when this whooping crane pairs up when it is about 3 years of age, I'll bet you that its mate brings it to Aransas and it from then on they will use the traditional wintering grounds for whooping cranes. My thinking is based on an actual case of a male whooping crane in the 1980's that spent 2 winters in other parts of Texas. As a 3-year-old, this bird got a mate and the female brought him to Aransas. When I first saw him, the male crane was about 2 miles from his parents' winter territory. I'm sure he had dropped by to say hello to his folks.

Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge


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