Advice on Migrating Cranes: "Beware of the Probables"
Michael A. Johnson
Game Management Section Leader and Supervisor, Migratory Bird Game Management, North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Even experienced birders and bird biologists can misidentify whooping cranes in flight. Michael Johnson offers his own example. After reading, discuss what you learned from his comments!

Over the years I have seen many whooping cranes. However, out of all the flocks of flying sandhills I have scanned and watched over the years, I don’t recall having ever seen whoopers flying with the sandhills. Of course, we know that this is a frequent occurrence and this type of sighting accounts for some of our reports.

Today, when I got back to the Bismarck [North Dakota] office after lunch I noticed that the sky overhead was full of flocks of migrating/soaring sandhills — all calling noisily. I looked up and saw two very large and very white birds with black wing-tips soaring within a flock of sandhill cranes. I noticed the birds through my truck windshield before I had even parked the truck — they were that obvious within the sandhill crane flock.

White Pelicans
Photo D. Sokoll

I grabbed my binoculars for a better look and just to be sure that they weren’t light-colored sandhills gleaming in the bright sunlight against the clear blue sky. To my surprise the two birds were PELICANS! This is a first for me: pelicans soaring with sandhills. Without binoculars I certainly would have called them whoopers, and it would have been listed as a confirmed sighting.

I’ve been dealing with sandhill cranes and white pelicans for at least 39 years. I saw my first whooper probably 30 years ago and have seen many whooping cranes, investigated countless sightings and even handled a few since then. I would say that I am an experience observer, but the lesson is that a person should never assume.

P.S. As I write this, Dale Repnow stopped by to say he just got a call from a citizen reporting two whooping cranes soaring with sandhills over the Coca Cola plant just a few minutes ago. That plant is about where I last saw the Sandshill crane/pelican flock as they flew off to the north.

Beware of the probables! It may be useful to pass this message to others.

Try This!

Crane ID: Will You Know a Whooper?