Students' Questions and Experts' Answers
Contributed by Whooping Crane expert Laura Erickson
for an ultralight ride with Joe Duff
thanks to ornithologist Laura
Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your
Owl's Hill Nature Sanctuary
Q: Our state is considering a hunting season for whooping cranes.
I know this has been approved in some other states; could you address this
A: No state is considering a hunting season for Whooping Cranes,
which are a critically endangered species, listed and given full
protection by the U.S. Federal Government. The only states that
don’t list the Whooping Crane on their endangered species
list don’t include it simply because Whooping Cranes don’t
live there at all.
Some states have a hunting season for Sandhill Cranes, which are
neither endangered nor threatened, and in most places now, their
population is growing. So I suspect more and more states will eventually
add Sandhill Cranes to their list of approved game species.
We do need to remember that hunters provide much of the money
that saves the habitat that Whooping Cranes need. Did you know
73% of the money used to buy the land for the Chassahowitzka
National Wildlife Refuge came from Duck Stamps, which hunters
must buy in
order to hunt ducks? Almost 45% of the money used to make St.
National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, where some of the Class of
2008 will winter, also came from Duck Stamp money. Duck Stamps
also provided 43% of the money to set aside Aransas National Wildlife
Refuge, where the wild whoopers that breed in Canada spend their
winter. I’m not a hunter and seeing dead birds makes me very
sad. And Sandhill Cranes mate for life and seem genuinely devoted
to their mate, so losing one crane probably harms the mate for
at least a while. But we do have to remember that we’d
have way fewer live Sandhill and Whooping Cranes without hunters
If you are not a hunter but do want to protect the land that Sandhill
and Whooping Cranes need, please consider buying a Duck Stamp at
your post office. A full 98 percent of all the money spent on Duck
Stamps goes directly to buying and leasing habitat that waterfowl,
cranes, and a great many non-game birds need. But rest assured
that even though hunters have provided so much money that helps
cranes, no state could possibly be allowed to create a hunting
season for Whooping Cranes, and I know of no hunters who would
Q: We were camping at Davis Lake in Central Oregon the last few
days in October. We heard the trilling of cranes and assumed they were
sandhills, which we've seen there before. We paddled out across the lake
toward the sound and also toward some giant white birds. I got the binoculars
on them and saw it was a flock of about 30 whooping cranes. I had no idea
how unlikely this was until we returned home and I researched for information
on these cranes. No one believes me that we saw whooping cranes in Oregon.
Has there ever been a sighting of them here? Could they be remnants of
a migrating flock from long ago?
A: It’s possible that these birds were from the wild group that migrate
from Wood Buffalo to Aransas, and somehow got diverted during migration.
But it’s more likely that they weren’t Whooping Cranes but very
pale Sandhill Cranes. Sandhill Cranes “paint” their feathers
by smearing mud on them while preening. When the mud has a lot of iron,
it turns the cranes quite brown. During migration when many of them gather
together, the ones whose feathers didn’t pick up iron can look very
pale in comparison, and are often mistaken for whoopers. Another
huge bird that is very frequently mistaken for a Whooping Crane is the American
Pelican, which is common in Oregon. Somehow from a distance that
long bill can confuse our eyes! Snow Geese are also sometimes mistaken for
Even during migration, Whooping Cranes don’t live in large
flocks. Virtually all fall migrants are seen in groups of 2, 3,
or 4—one mated pair and any young they produced that year.
I’ve spent time in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in
Texas in winter where I’ve often seen 30 or more Whooping
Cranes in a single day. But I didn’t see these birds in one
large group—they were pairs or small family groups with a
lot of space between the groups.
But as I said, it is possible that you saw Whooping Cranes. Birds
fly and are also functionally illiterate, so haven’t read
the bird books that tell us how they’re supposed to be behaving.
And many times birders find birds that are off-course or extremely
rare. For these birds to make it into the record books, the birder
must carefully document the sighting, explaining every field mark
seen, and thoroughly explaining how they distinguished this bird
from every other similar species. In the case of exceptional records,
photographs or sound recordings are often absolutely necessary
for a sighting to be accepted. I’m a birder, and I know how
frustrating it is when one of my sightings isn’t accepted.
But I’m glad that when I read a birding book that tells me
what birds live in what places, I know that the information has
all been thoroughly checked.
Q: What happens to the cranes that are left behind or can not
A: In the wild, parent cranes would never leave
any colt behind unless it got very late in the season and the
young crane simply
couldn’t fly. If this happened, the young crane would die.
Fortunately, the cranes that live in the wild come from healthy
parents that migrated well, and they pass on their genes to their
babies, so it’s exceptionally rare that a young crane cannot
fly by fall.
If one of the WCEP cranes reached fall and was unable to fly,
depending on the reasons why it couldn’t fly, whether it
was otherwise healthy, and other factors, it would be kept as
part of the captive flock.
Q. How long do cranes live in the wild/captivity?
A: The oldest known wild crane, called “the
Lobstick male,” hatched
in 1978 and will turn 30 in June. The oldest crane in captivity,
called Rattler, lives at the International Crane Foundation in
Wisconsin. He’s 39 years old. You can read about them here: >>
You can also read about the day Rattler broke the all-time record
for longevity here:>>
Q: What is the oldest crane that still can migrate?
Lobstick male, who is almost 30, is still migrating just fine.
Tom Stehn wrote about this crane in his March 14, 2008
report to Journey North. It was made into a special slide show
permanently available here: >>
Q: Where do we find information on how the eggs are gathered and
taken to Necedah, Wisconsin for each year's training?
A: Some eggs are laid by captive cranes living at the Patuxent
Wildlife Research Center. Other eggs are shipped there from special
places where captive cranes live, such as the International Crane
Foundation. Captive Whoopers and the eggs they lay play an important
role in bringing back this endangered species.
Whooping Cranes have been endangered for a long, long time, and
all the birds in captivity are descendents from a very few original
wild birds. Eggs are no longer taken from the wild Wood Buffalo
flock. So scientists work hard to ensure that the eggs chosen from
captive birds each year are as genetically diverse as possible
to ensure that the birds and, especially, the eggs that they produce
in the future will be as healthy as possible. Read about this here: >>
In the wild, when a pair of Whooping Cranes starts nesting, very
often something—a raccoon, skunk, larger predator, or other
animal, steals one or both eggs. So Whooping Cranes are adapted
to dealing with this. If one egg is taken, the female lays another
egg, and if this egg, too, is taken, she lays yet another one!
Scientists don’t want any female crane to waste too much
energy laying eggs, but taking one or two doesn’t seem to
harm the female or to make her distressed the way she’d be
if one of her chicks were taken. So this is how scientists get
the eggs from these captive birds.
Q: Is there any way they can shorten the time it takes for the
chicks and ultralights to reach Florida in the fall?
A: The time it takes is affected more by weather
than any other factor. We can never predict weather or flying
after one migration with Sandhill Cranes in 2000 and seven
migrations with Whooping Cranes in the years after, we’ve learned, the
hard way, that those mountains in Tennessee consistently cause
the longest delays. Is there a route between the Necedah National
Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife
Refuge in Florida that doesn’t go over those mountains?
There is, and this season the flock will use this new route.
assured ultralight pilot Joe Duff that the weather is much
better when they don't need to deal with the mountain range.
spring 2008 Whooping Crane Reports on Journey North as well
as the fall Journey South reports to learn more about it as
are revealed by Operation Migration.
For the Birds
For the love, understanding and protection of birds.