Q. What are the best weather conditions for crane migration?

A. Cranes usually migrate with a tailwind or no wind. In spring, the cranes usually depart when high pressure systems bring sunshine to Texas (Western natural flock) or Florida (Eastern reintroduced flock) and winds coming from the south or east. Thermals and strong southeast winds provide ideal northward migration conditions. By taking advantage of these thermals and tailwinds, the birds soar more and flap less. This saves their energy. Thermal currents aid the birds' flight by allowing them to spiral up to about a mile in altitude and then glide at speeds up to 60 mph. In fact, all along their migration path the whoopers wait for high pressure and favorable winds (tailwind or no wind) to continue their journey.

Q. What are the least favorable weather conditions for migrating cranes?

A. The least favorable conditions for crane migration in spring (northbound) are low pressure systems with north winds (winds coming from the north). Low pressure systems are associated with storms. When the migrating whoopers encounter these storms with their north winds, the birds will quickly find a place to land. They'll wait for for as many days as it takes until the north winds rotate back around to come out of the south.

Q. What do migrating whoopers do during bad weather?

A. If northbound cranes encounter winds from the north, the birds choose not to migrate that day. Instead they will spend the day feeding in wetlands or agricultural fields. Cranes stay grounded and face into the wind to avoid ruffling their feathers and keep them lying smoothly against their body. This preserves warmth and waterproofing. Fortunately, cranes can tolerate cold weather very well. They will simply wait until a winter storm is over to resume their journey north. During these storms, the whoopers will make short daily flights out to grain fields to feed, and return to wetlands to roost (spend the night). It is during these short low altitude flights where they might collide with power lines and be killed, especially during rain or snow storms when the power lines are not very visible.

Q. How do whooping cranes find their way when storms blow them far off course?

A. Birds have an amazing ability to recognize star patterns at night and to pay attention to the sun's angle in the sky during day. Using their internal biological clock they can tell if the sun is where it's supposed to be as the day progresses. When blown off course by bad weather, they can move in the right direction to get the sun where they need it to be to indicate the right direction for flying.

Q. What are some of the hazards that whooping cranes face on their long flight between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Wood Buffalo National Park?

A. Power lines, towers, hail storms, tornadoes, Peregrine Falcons, Bald and Golden Eagles, foxes, raccoons, wolves, coyotes, and steel leg traps are all potential hazards to these huge but fragile creatures. The development of wind farms is occurring at a rapid pace in the migration pathways. Wind turbines in the migration corridor are a risk to migrating birds. Read more about Migration Dangers and a main hazard: cell phone towers. Biologists in migration corridors are trying to consult with other experts to express concerns about these issues as power lines increase in number everywhere.

Q. Do all the cranes survive the migration?

A. Each year a certain number of Whooping Cranes do not survive the entire migration. For example, some years as many as a dozen adult cranes that leave Aransas in the spring fail to survive to return in the fall. Migration is hard work and some of the cranes simply will not be able to withstand the harsh conditions of spring blizzards or other bad weather. They also die from the human-caused hazards such as cell phone towers or illegal shooting by hunters. Because of migration dangers, the number of young hatched each year are not added to population totals until they reach Aransas in the fall. Some of the young cranes of the new Eastern flock have died on migration as well, victims of power lines, disease, or predators. In unusual events in 2007, most of the Class of 2006 in the new Eastern flock died in a Florida storm, and a juvenile whooping crane died when struck by a jet plane at the airport in Madison, WI. (Keep up with the new Eastern flock's history by checking each year's Meet the Flock charts.)

Q. How do humans affect the migration of the Whooping Crane?

A. Humans have a long history of filling in and draining wetlands, which reduces the safe places where cranes may rest and feed. Now the demand for fresh water needs for the fast-growing human population has become a real problem for Whooping Cranes' winter home in Texas. Long ago people shot at migrating cranes, and even now cranes are not safe from hunters. That's because their fall migration may coincide with goose hunting season, and hunters sometimes forget that not all white birds with black wingtips are Snow Geese. Some are Whooping Cranes! Humans also build tall communication towers and power lines that cranes can't see. Power line collisions are the biggest cause of crane deaths during migrations. Poachers and hunters have illegally shot some Whooping cranes too.

Q. How did the study of Whooping cranes begin?

A. For years, no one knew where whoopers went to nest and raise their young. Then, in 1954, a pilot flying over the remote Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, Canada, spotted a pair of whooping cranes and a possible chick. This discovery helped scientists in the US an Canada to better study the birds and plan ways to save them from extinction. They began tracking the spring and fall migrations, and telling the whooping cranes' story to the public. Read 4th-grader Hunter's description of How the Western Flock's Nesting Grounds Were Discovered.

Q. What is the Whooping cranes' status as an endangered species?

A. The only self-sustaining wild population of whooping cranes migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The population of the natural migratory flock hit an all time low in 1941 when only 15 cranes were at Aransas NWR. That same year, there were still 6 cranes in the nonmigratory flock in Louisiana. So 15 at Aransas  + 6 in Louisiana = 21, the all-time low for Whooping Cranes in North America. Thanks to joint efforts by Canada and the United States, their numbers have been struggling back from the brink of extinction but they remain vulnerable to extinction from continued loss of habitat or natural or man-made catastrophes. The long-term fate of the Whooping Crane is still uncertain. In 2007, the combined number of captive and wild whooping cranes in the world passed the 500 mark! Click here for recent numbers . Small fluctuations in population are normal.

Q. What is scientists' biggest worry about Whooping Cranes?

A. The world's only remaining wild migratory flock of Whooping Cranes, with one summer home and one winter home, might be lost to disease, bad weather, or other natural or human-caused disaster such as oil spills. That's why in 2001 the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership began reintroducing a new migratory flock into eastern North America. You can read all about that first ultralight-led migration in 2001 as well as the progress of the new Eastern flock by clicking here. To further protect the species from being wiped out, a nonmigratory flock was begun in Florida (see above) and a second nonmigratory flock began in Louisiana in February 2011.

Q. How fast is the Whooping Crane population growing?

A. Some recent record years for the last remaining natural flock were 1995 with an increase of 25 cranes, and 1997 with an increase of 22 cranes. The year 1999 was a struggle for the Whooping Cranes and disappointing for crane biologists. The flock managed to increase their numbers by only ONE crane. But in fall of 2004, the number of whooping cranes in this flock (the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock, or Western flock) finally went over the 200 mark! In 2007 the Western flock passed the 250 mark. The winter of 2009 was a very bad one for cranes due to a long drought in their Texas wintering grounds and 23 birds (8.5% of the flock) died in that year, bringing the natural flock's spring 2010 total to 263. Since 2001, a new, reintroduced eastern flock has been slowly growing, migrating between Wisconsin and Florida. In 2007, the combined number of captive and wild whooping cranes in the world passed the 500 mark! Click here for recent numbers.

Q. What has been done to increase the numbers of this endangered species?

A. In 1975 scientists and wildlife officials decided to use a new technique to start a second wild whooper flock. They began collecting whooper eggs from nests in Canada and taking them to Gray's Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. The whooper eggs were placed in the nests of sandhill cranes. (Removing one egg did not affect growth of the wild flock since whoopers normally lay two eggs but usually raise only one chick successfully.) The sandhill crane foster parents hatched and raised 4 whooper chicks in 1975. They taught the young whoopers to find food and to avoid predators such as coyotes and eagles. In the fall, the sandhills led the chicks on an 850-mile migration to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The young whoopers returned to Gray's Lake in the spring but by 2002, the number of Whooping Cranes in this new Rocky Mountain population was down to zero. Then, in 2000, ultralight aircraft successfully led a flock of sandhills between Wisconsin and Florida . This paved the way to do the same migration experiment with endangered Whooping Cranes in 2001 — and each year after that for several more years. This reintroduced eastern flock is becoming the ancestral flock for a second migratory flock in eastern North America, where Whooping Cranes disappeared over a century ago. In addition, Whooping Cranes in a few captive breeding centers are laying eggs and hatching chicks that will become part of the growing new eastern flock in the future, either through ultralight-led migrations or Direct Autumn Release among experienced Whooping Cranes to follow them on migration and learn the route. In addition, a small reintroduced flock (started in 1993) lives year-round in central Florida. A second nonmigratory flock being proposed for Louisiana could begin in 2011. Cranes in nonmigratory flocks DO NOT migrate because as young birds none of the cranes have ever been taught a migration route by wild parents or by human assistance.

Q. What is the most fascinating thing wildlife biologist Dr. Tom Stehn has learned about the Whooping Crane since conducting research on cranes?

A. Tom says: "For me, the most fascinating thing is that the babies imprint. The very first moving creature that a baby crane sees when it hatches becomes its image of adult cranes and when the baby grows up, that will be what it seeks in a mate. So when cranes were raised in captivity and fed by humans, they fell in love with humans. The most famous example of this is Tex, a crane that was originally raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and then sent to the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Tex bonded with crane scientist George Archibald, who had to jump up and down flapping his arms doing a crane dance with Tex every spring in order for her to lay eggs."

Q. How long do Whooping Cranes live?

A. A whooper in the wild usually lives 24-30 years. A Whooping crane in captivity may live 35 to 40 years or even longer. On June 2, 2007, a crane named "Rattler" at at the Internationl Crane Foundation (ICF) broke the record for longevity of a Whooping Crane in captivity! Rattler hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland on June 2, 1968 and lived there until 1989. He was given special food treats all during his birthday week to celebrate, and the aviculturalists ate cupcakes for Rattler's birthday party. The previous record for a captive Whooping crane was 38 years, 7 months for "Canus." This injured wild-caught chick died at Patuxent WRC in 2003. Banding studies help us learn how long cranes live, but voice prints are the newest way way of keeping track of individual cranes over the years.

Q. How are Whooping cranes important to the ecosystem?

A. Whooping cranes eat a wide variety of foods, both plant and animal, and they in turn are prey for predators such as foxes, wolves, coyotes, lynxes, bobcats, raccoons, and even Golden eagles.

Q. Why are Whooping Cranes being reintroduced to eastern North America?

A. Whooping Cranes are a highly endangered species. The only naturally occurring flock of wild migratory whooping cranes left in the world has been the one that migrates between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. It is a huge risk to have all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and one breeding location. With all of the cranes concentrated in one small area, the population could be wiped out by disease, bad weather, or human impacts such as oil spills or freshwater demands. Whooping Crane survival depends on additional, separate populations being established. Survival also depends on good crane habitat remaining available at their winter and summer homes and along their migration routes.

Q. Who decides how many additional populations are needed?

A. After a species is listed as threatened or endangered, the Endangered Species Act requires that a recovery plan be designed. A recovery plan is a blueprint to improve population health of threatened and endangered species. The recovery plan for Whooping cranes was developed by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, made up of five specialists from Canada and five from the United States. The Recovery Team has also decided that any new flock should be established in areas where there is very a low chance of contacting the existing wild flock. This separation will minimize the possibility of spreading diseases between newly established flocks and other existing Whooping cranes.

Q. Was Wisconsin the first site considered for reintroduction?

A. No. A non-migratory flock has been reintroduced in the Kissimmee Prairie region of central Florida. As of August 2002, 89 birds were in that flock. Most of those birds are young, but two whooping crane chicks hatched in Florida for the first time in 60 years. Both chicks were taken by predators, but in the summer of 2002 one chick lived to flege. Named Lucky, it was the first wild chick fledged in the U.S. dating back to the last nesting of Whooping cranes in Louisiana in 1939. Lucky is the first whooping crane fledged in Florida since the reintroduction of the nonmigratory flock started in 1993. In 1975, another attempt to reintroduce whooping cranes began in Idaho when whooping crane eggs were placed in sandhill crane nests. The sandhill cranes then became foster parents. The attempt did not succeed because the Whooping cranes only recognized sandhills and would not breed with other Whooping cranes when they reached adulthood.

Q. Why was Wisconsin considered as a reintroduction site?

A. The most important reason was that the new Wisconsin flock will be separated by a distance from other wild flocks. Also, Wisconsin has a lot of suitable crane habitat on federal, state, and private lands. Wisconsin's has a long tradition of environmental commitment and suppport from the public, giving better chances for the project to succeed. For a simulation game about choosing a new home for the whoopers, see Whoopers for Wisconsin?.

Q. How was the specific site for reintroduction in Wisconsin chosen?

A. Three Wisconsin release sites were investigated in 1999. Site selection was based on habitat analysis, local community support, and protection potential. In September 1999, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team selected Necedah National Wildlife Refuge for a test release using sandhill cranes in 2000. The migration experiment with sandhills was a success, paving the way for the same experiment to be repeated with whooping cranes beginning in 2001.


5 months old, running with handlers
Operation Migration

Q. Where do the birds for reintroductions come from?

A. The U.S. and Canada are working together to help whooping cranes.
A few captive flocks have been established and they produce cranes (crane eggs) for reintroduction to the wild. Click here to see some locations with captive whooping cranes.

Q. How are the birds reintroduced?

A. In the wild, chicks follow their parents south on the fall migration, then return north the next spring on their own. When bringing back a new population of whooping cranes to a former range, no adult cranes are available to teach the young and show the way. Humans and tiny ultralight airplanes become "stand-in parents" to teach the little chicks where to go on their first migration. See "Bringing Back the Cranes: Photo Overview." Eventually, the planes won't be needed anymore. The whoopers will begin hatching and teaching their own chicks the way. This takes years, so chicks will also be added another way; a few captive-bred chicks will be released around the adult whooping cranes in Wisconsin in hopes they'll follow the adults on migration. (This is called Direct Autumn Release, or DAR, and it began in 2005.) One migration is all it takes, and the birds willl know the route for the rest of their lives.

Q. How do ultralight-led birds know the way back home by themselves?

A. Research has shown that birds can be raised at a captive breeding center and then transported to the site chosen for their introduction, as long as the move takes place BEFORE they learn to fly. Birds seem to focus on the first location they can explore from the air. They will return to that place year after year. (Males are more dependable in returning, and while some females seem to wander more.)

Q. Why is the new Wisconsin/Florida migratory flock called nonessential experimental?

A. This population is designated as "experimental" because it will be isolated from other populations whoopers. It is called "nonessential" because these birds will not be esssential to the survival of the entire species. Under this designation, the reintroducd whooping cranes will not receive full Endangered Species Act protection. This allows greater management flexibility. It also solves some possible conflicts between people (such as farmers or landowners on the migration route) and whooping crane conservation. However, if the new Eastern whooping cranes stray outside a certain protected area of states and provinces in the new Eastern migration route, they will be protected under the Endangered Species Act. For more, click here.

Q. What is the reintroduction goal in Wisconsin?

A. The Wisconsin/Florida reintroduction project will be a 10- to 15-year effort.The goal is a flock of 125 birds in Wisconsin by 2020, including 25 nesting pairs, with introduction of 18-20 chicks each year. Ultralight-led migrations will take place for at least five years after the first flight in 2001.

Q. What will it take to get Whooping Cranes off the endangered species list?

A. In May 2007 the third revision of the Recovery Plan was adopted. For the first time it includes needed recovery actions for both Canada and the U.S. The long-term recovery goal for whooping cranes is to establish a self-sustaining population of a minimum of 1,000 whooping crane s in North America by the year 2035. The goal in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock (the Western flock) is to maintain a minimum of 40 nesting pairs. The goal for the new Eastern flock is to establish 25 breeding pairs from 125 birds released in the Eastern Migratory Flyway by 2020, with introduction of 18-20 chicks each year.