Why are these birds called whooping cranes?
Their snow-white body feathers
are accented by jet-black wingtips and a red patch of skin on top of
the head. The face has a black mask and the beak is
long and pointed. The bill is a dull pink with dull brown in
and yellow on the tip. The legs and feet are black. (Photo Eva Szyszkoski)
A. Their long necks are extended straight forward in flight, with legs extended beyond the tail. The wingbeat is slow.
Q. How are whooping cranes different from sandhill cranes?
A. Whoopers are white and larger than the common sandhill cranes, which are light gray. Whoopers migrate in groups of usually 2 to 7, whereas sandhill cranes migrate in flocks of 2 to hundreds.
A. The courtship rituals help forge and strengthen pair bonds. The courtship consists of calling, wing flapping, head bowing, and tremendous leaps into the air by one of both birds. These dances occur not only before mating, but also may occur as whoopers defend their territories or simply release tension. See Dancing With the Cranes.
Q. How is a whooping crane's body adapted to its lifestyle and habitat?
A. A crane has a very reduced back toe, so it won't get tangled in wetland vegetation, but this also means it can't perch in trees. A crane has a long, slender beak so that it can reach into deep water or through dense wetland vegetation to pull out crabs, plants, and other food on the bottom of shallow water. A crane's long legs allow it to see above tall, dense marsh vegetation. Such long legs help it walk in rivers and shallow lakes. Black tips on its flight feathers provide the pigments that strengthen the feathers right where they are most vulnerable to wear and tear in flight. Read more here, and do a fun activity.
Q. Do cranes travel together when they migrate?
A. Even with so many cranes leaving within a short time period, whooping cranes do not travel together. They leave in small groups of 2 or 3, at staggered starting times. Sometimes, two such units will join forces; possibly 5 cranes, or occasionally a few more, may be flying together--but not the entire flock.
Q. What might be some advantages for whooping cranes to migrate in very small groups rather than big flocks?
A. One advantage is fewer of the birds would get hurt if an accident occurs. The cranes can't afford for a large group of them to die. Finding food is easier for a smaller group than for a whole flock. Smaller groups can fly at different rates to help the inexperienced flyers. Cranes traveling in small groups can hide more easily from predators that might kill them. And it might be easier for a small group to find a place to rest.
Q. Do all the whoopers leave at the same time from their Texas winter home?
A. No. When a territorial pair departs, their neighbors begin to leave shortly afterwards. Departures are never randomly spread across the wintering grounds. Instead, they occur in clumped patterns.
Q. When cranes travel, do the groups with inexperienced flyers leave sooner than adult cranes because the flight may take them longer?
A. Tom Stehn, Journey North's crane expert, doesn't think so. Some adults leading a young on migration are among the first to leave; that is because they are already an established pair and become ready to nest earlier than more inexperienced birds. Last year's young may not know the landmarks and route for their migration, but they are strong fliers.
Q. What do whooping cranes eat?
A. They eat mostly crabs, crayfish, frogs, and other small aquatic life. They may eat fish. They eat many things! On the wintering grounds, blue crabs are the whoopers' favorite food item. Blue crabs in their diet are important in helping cranes build up enough energy reserves to have a successful nesting season.
Q. What happens to cranes when blue crabs are in scarce supply?
A. It means possible low egg/chick production the next summer. About half of the whoopers failed to nest in 1994, when blue crabs had been scarce. Experts think this was because the cranes weren't in good enough condition. Low crab supplies in 2000 probably led to the low production in summer 2001. When blue crabs are in trouble, cranes are in trouble.
Q. What do cranes eat when getting ready for their migration?
A. Whooping cranes eat a wide variety of foods, but they concentrate on blue crabs while putting on body fat and protein before their long journey north. Blue crab is simply the right stuff, with the best balance of nutrients. They're very high in protein and fat, as are many other things that cranes eat. A crane's beak is so well adapted to getting the meat out of crabs that cranes tend to take a lot of crabs.
Q. Where do whooping cranes spend the winter?