A Day in the Life of a Migrating Whooper
Brian Johns, Canadian Wildlife Service
Brian Johns, CWS

How High Do They Fly?
Whooping cranes migrate anywhere from 15 metres to 1800 metres above the ground. Most often their flights are around 500 metres, making them visible from the ground. Occasionally people on the ground will see them migrating, but most observations come from people who observe them at stopover locations where the Whoopers are resting or feeding.

How Fast? How Far?
When migrating, Whooping Cranes can fly at speeds of anywhere from 60 - 80 kilometres per hour (kph) or more. If they have a tail wind, the birds can reach speeds of over 100 kph. Daily distancess average around 400 kilometres and the birds stay aloft for 7 or more hours.

In spring, crane flights as long as 650 kilometres in length and flying times of 8 to 10 hours have been recorded. How are the birds able to fly so long in a day? Read on!

Subadult Whooping Cranes Soaring and Gliding.
Photo WCEP

Soaring and Gliding
Cranes are unlike most other birds when they migrate in that they flap their wings very little. When the cranes take off from the ground around mid-day, they begin flapping until they find a thermal of warm air rising from the ground. The birds will then circle in the thermal to gain altitude. Once they have reached the top of the thermal they will set their wings and glide in the direction of migration, slowly descending along the way. When they reach another thermal, they will again spiral upwards. They repeat the process over and over throughout the day.

A thermal is a column of rising air caused by uneven heating of the earth.


Cumulous clouds are tell-tale signs of thermals.

Photo Heather Ray

Coming Down for the Night
Towards the end of the day, the cranes will begin to look for a suitable place to spend the night. Suitable places include shallow wetlands surrounded by good feeding areas. Once they find a likely-looking spot, they will slowly glide down to spend the night, roosting in the shallow water.

Journal or Discuss: Migration Metrics
  • Go back to the first two paragraphs and find all the metric measurements that describe how fast or far cranes fly. List them in your crane journal. Convert the metrics to English measurements. Then use your numbers to write a paragraph that tells about crane flight.
  • Why do you think whooping cranes migrate during the daytime?
  • What is the most surprising thing you learned from Brian on this page? How did it change your thinking?
  • See our Altitude Comparisons chart to help your understanding of distances.

National Science Education Standards

  • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, reproduction.

National Math Standards

  • Understand measurable attributes of objects and the units, systems, and processes of measurement.