Whooping Crane Background Facts

  • The whooping crane, considered to be the icon of endangered species, once inhabited much of North America. It is the rarest of the world's 15 crane species. The species' historic decline, near extinction, and gradual recovery is among the best known and documented conservation stories.

  • Concern over the near extinction of the whooping crane has prompted a broad range of conservation actions. these include national and international legal protections; comprehensive scientific research and monitoring programs; protection of key habitats; development of whooping crane recovery teams and comprehensive recovery plans; and extensive public education campaigns.

  • Without help and intervention, whooping cranes will not survive.The species declined rapidly in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a result of hunting, collecting, and the conversion of its habitats to agriculture. By 1940, only the one self-sustaining flock remained. All whooping cranes alive today are descendents of these few cranes: fewer than 20 individuals, about 3 or 4 nesting pairs. This meant only 4 or 5 genetic lines to carry on the species.

  • Since the mid-1960s, captive breeding has provided security against extinction of the species while allowing opportunities to initiate new populations.

  • The key to their survival of the species is to add geographically separated migrating populations. The separation keeps the birds safe from transmitting diseases that could wipe out the flock, or from being wiped out by human-caused, weather, or environmental catastrophes.

  • The world's only self-sustaining wild population is protected on public lands in the nesting area at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and on the principal wintering area at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. This population is closely monitored throughout the nesting season, on the wintering grounds, and during migration. It is sometimes referred to as the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock.

  • Besides around 174 birds in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock (2001 figures), the world's wild whooping cranes also include the tiny core population of the new Eastern migratory flock started in 2001, about 75 whoopers in a nonmigratory flock in Florida, and two whoopers in the Rocky Mountains. About 140 captive whooping cranes (2001 figures) live in breeding centers in North America (Patuxent WRC in Maryland, ICF in Wisconsin, Calgary Zoo in Canada, San Antonio Zoological Gardens in Texas, Lowery Park Zoo in Tampa, Fl, and the Audubon Institute, New Orleans).
  • Recovery to nearly 400 whooping cranes could not have happened without the efforts of the governments and people of both the United States and Canada. Thanks to captive breeding, an experimental non-migratory population inhabits palmetto grasslands, savannahs, and shallow marshes in the Floridaís Kissimmee Prairie region.
  • The Whooping Crane occurs exclusively in North America. The historic mid-continental breeding range stretched from Alberta across the northeastern portions of the mid-continental prairies to near the southern end of Lake Michigan. The historic wintering grounds included the highlands of northern Mexico, the Texas Gulf coast, and portions of the Atlantic coast. Non-migratory populations occurred in Louisiana and possibly other areas in the southeastern United States.

  • Whooping cranes learn their migration oute from their parents. In this way, a route established a million years ago is passed from one generation to the next. If birds are extirpated from an area, the route is lost too.

  • Using the techniques developed by a non-governmental organization called Operation Migation, whooping cranes are being taught a migration route between Wisconsin and Florida. The ultralight-led migration is part of the effort to establish a new flock of wild, migratory whooping cranes in eastern North America. The whooping crane reintroduction was begun in the summer of 2001. Ultralight-escorted migrations will be part of the plans for approximately five more years as a core population is established and young cranes can begin learning the migration route from following adults in the Wisconsin/Florida flock.

  • Whooping cranes continue to face multiple threats, including habitat loss and pollution from contaminant spills in their traditional wintering grounds, collision with utility lines, human disturbance, disease, predation, loss of genetic diversity within the population, and vulnerability to natural and human-caused catastrophes and the impacts of human population growth. The primary threats to captive birds are disease and parasites. Bobcat predation has been a serious problem with the Florida experimental non-migratory population.

  • Whooping cranes need good habitat to survive. They need to roost in water at night in order to feel safe from predators. Traditionally, this water is 13-20 cm. deep. When the chicks are very small, they might roost on islands surrounded by open water where the adults roost.

  • Wetlands provide good crane habitat. Cranes nest in open water areas by building a platform of reeds and grasses that are raised above the water's surface. Good nesting areas generally require water less than 3 feet deep, but preferably around 18 inches deep. Whoopers are very wetland-dependent birds, so the wetland must not dry out entirely during the year.

  • Whooping cranes mainly feed on blue crabs, clams, shrimp, aquatic invertebrates, small vertebrates, frogs, and plant roots, seeds and berries. In adjacent uplands, whoopers are known to forage for acorns, snails, insects, rodents and other food items. Waste grain is an important food along the migratory route. Cranes have been recorded to eat snakes, small birds and basically anything they can get their beaks on.

  • Cranes prefer poorly drained areas with numerous shallow-water wetlands with soft bottoms. Often these wetlands are separated by narrow ridges where spruce, willow, birch and tamarack trees grow. Cattail, sedges and rushes grow in the waterways. Whoopers visit agricultural lands usually only during migration, when waste grain is a food source, and then it's usually the non-family groups. (The families continue to use wetlands more.)

  • Whooping cranes migrate singly, in pairs, in family groups or in very small flocks. Whooping cranes are sometimes accompanied by sandhill cranes. Whoopers are not as social or as robust as their non-endangered cousins, the sandhill cranes. Whoopers are diurnal migrants, stopping regularly to rest and feed, and use traditional migration staging areas. On the wintering grounds, pairs and family groups occupy and defend territories.
  • Immatures are a reddish cinnamon color that results in a beautiful mottled appearance as the white feather bases extend. The juvenile plumage is gradually replaced through the winter months and becomes predominantly white by the following spring as the dark red crown and face become apparent. Yearlings achieve the typical adult appearance by late in their second summer or fall.

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).