Spring 2017 News
Looking Back 2001-2015

Along the Migration Trail
March 13, 2017 by Jane Duden

The early birds have departed and the rest of the cranes are restless. How do they get ready to go?

a Whooping Crane preening its feathers
Cranes take good care of their feathers.
By Brooke Pennypacker


Where Are They Now?
Days are longer. The early birds have departed and the rest of the cranes are restless. As of early March, the eastern Whooping Cranes were reported in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.

The Class of 2016 is down to eight birds after a sad loss. The remains of crane #38-16 were found by an Arkansas roadside around March 9th. He was apparently hit and killed by a car. The rest of the Class of 2016 birds were last reported here, in no hurry to go:

  • one in Indiana
  • two in Tennessee
  • one in Arkansas
  • two in Alabama
  • one in Florida
  • and one in Georgia with alloparents

How do they get ready for migration?

Keeping Feathers Fit
Feathers make the perfect all-weather suit, but they also must last for thousands of miles of flying before new feathers take their place. That's why cranes spend a lot of time caring for their feathers. The process is called preening. Without preening, feathers would dry out and get brittle. Clean, smooth feathers preserve warmth and waterproofing. Oils from a crane's preen gland, located just above the tail, keep feathers supple and sleek. A crane's neck can turn and reach all the way back to the tail to wipe the bill on this important oil. The bird nibbles at the base of each feather and then zips the entire length of the feather through its bill to fix any gaps in the feather vanes. Preening also helps cranes keep mites, lice, and other parasites and biting insects under control.

 
This crane's breath condenses in cold temperatures, creating a cloud by its mouth.
Image Ted Thousand

Coping With Cold
Cranes face all kinds of weather on the wintering grounds, along the migration trail, and arriving in the north. Some cranes are "seeing their breath" in states where it's still snowy and cold. Cranes can handle winter weather with enough food, such as leftovers in corn fields, and with protection from wind. They stay grounded and face into the wind to avoid ruffling their feathers. This keeps feathers lying smoothly against the body. Even at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, the captive cranes that live there all year are not locked indoors until the temperature hits -40 degrees F, or the wind chill is -40 F!

Eyes Up!
People along the migration route feel so lucky if they see our rare Whooping Cranes heading north. Most eastern flock birds return to Wisconsin, the place where they learned to fly. We're hoping for good news as we wonder when — and if — the crane-kids in the Class of 2016 find their way home.