Tom Stehn's Report: Identifying Whoopers and Leaving Mom and Dad
March 30, 2007
Meet Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As you read Tom's report this week . . .
  1. What are four or more field markings that identify an adult Whooping Crane?
  2. What unusual crane seen on Nebraska's Platte River is making it even harder to spot the Whoopers?
  3. What is normal behavior for a young crane making its first journey north?
  4. Send your crane questions to Ask the Expert before closes on April 6!

March 30, 2007

Dear Journey North,
The "Oiled" Family

"Oiled" Family Found!
Last time I told you that I have been watching a special family group at Aransas this winter. I didn't find them on my last two searches. Well, I found them on a recent flight to look for any juvenile mortality that may have occurred during winter. The good news is that I didn't find any evidence of young crane deaths, but I DID find the oiled family! The North Cottonwood family group had apparently been exposed to oiled water during the fall migration and they got stained. I identified the family from a color band on the right leg of one of the adults. Although I could not get a look at their bellies, no staining was apparent on the feathers on the upper leg, indicating that the birds have lost some of the staining present last fall.

I hope to conduct flights every 7-10 days in April to document the upcoming migration. Stay tuned for the counts!
Great Egret: Crane Look-alike!

Photo: Laura Erickson at Disney World

It's Hard to Identify a Whooping Crane in the Sky
I want to write a little about the difficulty of identifying Whooping Cranes. Sure, they are nearly five feet tall — taller than any other bird in North America. But it is often hard to get a good look at Whooping Cranes in migration to identify them correctly. That is because cranes usually stay away from people during migration.

Mistakes People Make
Many people call me to report they have seen Whooping Cranes, and often they are mistaken. Great Egrets are also all white and tall, but have yellow bills and no black on the wings. White pelicans in flight look extremely similar to whooping cranes. Pelicans are also very large white birds with black on the wings, and the long beak of a pelican can sometimes be mistaken at a distance for the long neck of a crane. Remember, people are often seeing these birds flying high above them, maybe 1⁄2 mile away. The biggest difference in flight is that the Whooping Crane legs stick straight out far behind their body, whereas the pelican has very short legs that don’t stick out at all.

Whooping Cranes are pure white except for black wing tips and black markings on the face. Adult Whooping Cranes have red on the back of their head, but it does not stand out the way the red crown covers the entire top of the head of a Sandhill Crane. Juvenile Whooping Cranes in the spring have a few rusty brown feathers remaining on the body, and their heads and upper neck are still rusty brown. The brown feathers are the feathers the birds had when they were very young chicks to allow them to hide from predators. As they grow larger, the brown feathers are gradually replaced with white feathers.
Is this a whooping crane? >>

Photo Jeannette Parker,
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A Confusing Kind of Crane
One other bird can make it very difficult to identify a Whooping Crane. Sometimes the gray feathers on a Sandhill Crane don’t develop the right pigments and the feathers remain white. We call this a leucistic Sandhill Crane, different from an albino although they look similar. There have been 2 or 3 leucistic Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River (Nebraska) in March, making it more difficult to identify several Whooping Cranes that have been seen so far this spring on the Platte River, a big stopover site.

A LONE Juvenile: Was This Sighting Correct?
Reports came on March 20th on the Platte River in Nebraska and on March 27th in South Dakota of a juvenile Whooping Crane traveling with sandhills. Both observers reported seeing some rusty brown feathers. These sightings provoked lots of discussion. Was the Whooping Crane juvenile identified correctly? I think they were valid sightings. But … what was the juvenile doing by itself since a Whooping Crane juvenile usually remains with its parents during its first year? We had a family group of Whooping Cranes leave Aransas on March 8th. Had the juvenile separated from its parents somewhere during the migration and the youngster then sighted later in Nebraska and North Dakota?
Chick W1-06 in October, 2006 (4 months of age)

Photo: Richard Urbanek, ICF

Normal Behavior: Chick W1-06
Whooping Crane juveniles normally complete the spring migration with their parents. Then they go off on their own, remaining in areas close to — but not within — their parents' nesting territory. This is what just happened with the first Eastern Flock Whooping Crane chick hatched in Wisconsin last summer. Chick W1-06 spent its first year with its parents (#211 and #217 in the new flock). After migrating in the fall and wintering in Florida, this family left Florida on February 23, 2007 and arrived back on the parents' nesting territory in Wisconsin on March 20, 2007. On March 23, the juvenile was off by itself, adjacent to its parents' nesting territory.

We have never observed parent cranes aggressively chasing off their juvenile, but somehow they effectively communicate to their youngster that it is time to go off on its own. Soon the parents will be building a nest. The juvenile seems ready to be independent and will spend the summer by itself or with other Whooping Cranes that have not yet found mates. It’ll do just fine because it learned from its parents all the skills needed to survive.

Leaving Parents Early
The separation of the juvenile whooping crane sometimes occurs before or during the spring migration. I have documented Whooping Crane adults that start the migration from Aransas and their youngster stays behind. The juvenile must be asking, “Where are you flying off to, Mom and Dad?” The juvenile quickly adjusts and usually joins groups of other whooping cranes to make the migration. Sometimes the juvenile breaks off from the parents during the migration. Once when I was radio-tracking a family group of cranes and we had crossed the border into Canada, the parents continued the migration a few days later and the juvenile stayed behind. The juvenile was fine; it later made it back to the summering area in Wood Buffalo National Park on its own. We had not observed any aggressive behavior by the parents against their juvenile. I think the juvenile had just decided that it was time to go its own way.

Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator