Focusing on Feathers

Now on the wintering grounds, Whooping cranes spend their time looking for food and eating. When they’re not busy doing that, they sleep and preen…mostly preen.

Preening feathers to keep them in top condition is a daily job for cranes.
Brooke Pennypacker, Operation Migration


February 5, 2018
by Heather Ray, Operation Migration

This is the time of year when things are fairly quiet in the Whooping Crane world. With the exception of one bird, all the whoopers in the Eastern Migratory Population are at their winter homes and are not flying around a great deal. In fact they’re spending the majority of their time looking for food and eating. And, when they’re not busy doing that, they sleep and preen… Mostly preen.

It takes a lot of maintenance for white birds to stay white – especially when they live in muddy marshes. They have to keep those feathers in good shape and that means keeping them clean so that they provide insulation to keep the cranes warm in cold weather, and cool in warm weather.

Dirty feathers just do not work well.

Despite all the time spent preening and caring for their plumage, a crane's feathers undergo wear and tear and are replaced periodically during the bird's life through molting. Molting in cranes typically takes place on the nesting grounds in the spring when they have small, flightless chicks to care for.

Unfortunately, during molting, cranes (and other birds) are rendered flightless, which makes them vulnerable to predators such as coyotes, bobcats, lynx and even eagles. They must be very careful and vigilant during this period and most go into hiding in the tall vegetation but still in water so that they can hear a predator approaching.

The molting process is slow, and not all feathers are shed at once. Feathers drop off over time and are replaced with brand new feathers that grow into the same follicle.

We are fortunate to witness this each year with the young cranes released in central Wisconsin. When the cranes arrive and are examined and banded prior to release, they are a pretty tawny brown color. Take a look at Whooping crane #4-17 when he first arrived in Wisconsin.

Whooping Crane

Crane #4-17 at 3 months old.

Over the next few months, each brown feather falls out and is replaced by a white feather.

Whooping Crane Feather
Brown feather of a juvenile Whooping Crane

By the time their first birthday comes around, they are mostly white and look like an adult, even though they’re only a year old. The picture below is number 4-17 again but this photo was taken in December. He is 9 months old in this photo but when you compare this image with the one above when he was 3 months old, you can see how much difference there is in his coloration!

Whooping Crane

Crane #4-17 at 9 months old.

So there you have it – This is what the Whooping cranes have been up to since they left Wisconsin! They have been taking care of their feathers and eating all the tasty food items they can find so that in just a few short weeks they have the energy they’ll need to begin flying back to Wisconsin.

Over and out…

Heather Ray
Operation Migration