Preparing For Migration

Flight Gear: Feathers
Whooping Cranes live in a harsh environments for fragile feathers. The feathers are constantly fraying, fading, and wearing down due to wind, sun without shade, abrasive and raspy grasses, saltwater in winter, and wet habitats year round. Luckily, cranes grow sturdy feathers! Once each year they grow a set of new ones.

Molting of a crane's body plumage starts in early summer and continues into fall. Cranes begin molting their flight feathers late in the nesting period or soon after their chicks hatch. Some individuals become flightless for several weeks in some years while these feathers are gone. The breeding season is the right time to molt feathers because until their chicks can fly, the adults stay right by the chicks on the ground. Fortunately for these long-distance migrants, their body feathers are still thick from winter, and their flight feathers are still sturdy enough to withstand the long journey south.

Cranes need to pig out on their wintering grounds— especially on blue crabs—to give their bodies enough fat to help fuel their flight. Cranes don't need to find gas stations on their journey like human travelers do, but whenever they see a promising wetland, they can drop down to eat and rest before going on.

Cranes are a species that needs to be taught their migration route. After their first journey south with parents leading the way, young cranes have the map in their brains forever. Once they've made the journey south, they'll find their way north again—and normally right back to the place they first saw from the air when they learned to fly.

Journal or Discussion:

  • Study a topographical map of your region. List the important landmarks migratory animals might use as they pass through your part of the world. What senses might help migratory animals identify the landmarks you listed?
Whooping crane during summer molting
Vickie Henderson
Getting Fit Feathers
Preening feathers
Brooke Pennypacker
Preening and Cleaning
Whooping crane eating a blue crab on the wintering grounds
Alan Murphy
Best Food: Blue Crabs
Cranes in flight over a landscape
Operation Migration