In late April or early May—once their territory has been established— Whooping Crane pairs of breeding age build a nest and lay two eggs. The eggs are usually laid a day apart.
Pairs share the responsibility of incubation day and night for about 30 days.
The two eggs do not hatch at the same time. The older egg hatches a day or two earlier because it has been exposed to heat from the parents for a slightly longer time, and is therefore more developed. The chick can fit in the palm of your hand. Once the second egg hatches, the adventures for the chicks begin!
Chicks are unable to regulate their body temperature yet, so they need to be brooded (kept warm) by their parents for several weeks. Dense downy coats keep them warm too. It can be cold so far north.
Parents are kept very busy searching for food to bring to the chicks. Food includes snails, aquatic and terrestrial insects, and small fish such as dace and stickleback. Chicks develop and learn very quickly from their parents. In just a few days, the chicks begin to venture away from the nest platform to forage and explore their parents' territory. Parents are kept very busy searching for food to bring to the chicks. Food includes snails, aquatic and terrestrial insects, and small fish such as dace and stickleback. Chicks develop and learn very quickly from their parents. In just a few days, the chicks begin to venture away from the nest platform to forage and explore their parents' territory.
The summer is spent growing, exploring and learning from its parents how to be a Whooping Crane. Chicks grow very fast. They are almost as tall as their 5-foot-tall parents by the end of August!
Caring for and raising a chick is hard work. The breeding grounds are filled with challenges. For example, many avian predators such as ravens and golden eagles nest in close proximity to the whooping cranes. They, too, need to feed their young. The second chick often struggles to keep up with its older sibling. Parents are often only able to raise one chick despite having hatched two. We know from our fledgling surveys later in the summer, however, that each year some families are able to raise both chicks. Raising two chicks in a season is something to celebrate!
About 80 days after hatch, young cranes learn the art of flight. The period of time from hatch to flight is the most dangerous for Whooping Crane chick survival. Once able to fly, the young are much safer. They can fly off and escape from predators.
Young are losing their rusty brown feathers for beautiful white feathers like their parents. They are almost as tall as their parents! Now comes a host of new lessons for the chicks. Now these western-flock parents must prepare their young for the next adventure: their first fall migration to Texas. Well done, crane family!