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Nature Notes

Whooping Cranes

About 6 weeks ago, I was driving south along 41 when I noticed two of my friends stopped along the road. I quickly called them to see what they were up to, and they excitedly told me about a pair of Whooping Cranes out in the back of a farm field. I took the next turn around and met them to get a look at these two rare and beautiful birds.

Whooping Cranes are North America’s tallest bird, stretching up to 5 feet in height and having a wing span of up to 8 feet. This, along with their brilliant white coloring, makes them one of our most recognizable birds. If you see a giant white crane, there really isn’t anything else it can be. But, if you’d like to be sure, you can also identify Whooping Cranes by their black primary feathers visible during flight, and red skin and sparse black hair like feathers on the tops of their heads. Interestingly, Whooping Cranes are born with blue eyes which turn to yellow as they reach adulthood.

These beautiful birds were once found in a great diversity of habitats, though they favored the eastern tallgrass prairies and aspen parklands of the upper mid-west and Canada, where they would spend their summers. Their winter grounds were the coastal marshes found in Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico. It is here, in these coastal waters, where Whooping Cranes make their nest. Made of grasses and rushes, these nests actually sit atop the shallow water. 

While both the male and female take turns incubating the eggs, the male is responsible for defending his family. Typically, two eggs are laid each year, and incubation will last about a month.

Whooping Cranes were once plentiful, seen across a wide geographic range from Canada to Mexico. Unfortunately, their numbers began to quickly decline during the late 1800’s. This downward trend continued through the first half of the 20th century. Habitat loss and conversion due to westward expansion, along with hunting and specimen collection were large contributors to this decline.

During the winter of 1938-39, there were only 29 individual Whooping Cranes living in two separate flocks: the Louisiana non-migratory flock, and the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock. Only 29 Whooping Cranes found in the entire world. Then, more bad news. By 1951, the Louisiana flock was no more. The outlook for the continued survival of this species was not very good.

It was well understood that the Whooping Crane was hanging on by a thread. Such a small population was too vulnerable. Any single event, such as a hurricane coming through their nesting grounds, could wipe them out completely. Scientists and other concerned people knew that they needed to not only protect the existing populations, but help increase their numbers, and spread them out a bit.

Many attempts have been made over the last 80 years to help to protect and increase the population of the Whooping Cranes. Not all of them were successful. In 1975, there was an attempt to create a separate flock of Whooping Cranes by taking eggs from the original flock and placing them in the nests of a separate Sandhill Crane flock. The idea was that the Sandhill Cranes would adopt the Whooping Cranes and teach them to follow their migration route, thereby establishing a mixed flock. Unfortunately, these Whooping Cranes had high mortality and failed to form pair bonds with each other. No Whooping Cranes survive in this adoptive flock.

Around this same time, a re-introduction program was established and a new Rocky Mountain flock was created with 4 founding members. In 1976, the Whooping Crane population had more than doubled; of course that was still only 61 individual birds. The positive step here was that there were also 20 birds being raised in captivity, for a total of 81 Whooping Cranes. The captive rearing program would turn out to be one of the most important aspects of Whooping Crane recovery. 

In the 1980’s, a program to create a non-migratory flock was being put together in Florida. This was in an attempt to mimic the flock which had existed in Louisiana before 1951. In 1993, over 30 birds were released from the captive rearing program. As of 2006, there were 58 Whooping Cranes in this non-migratory flock.

More recently, a second migratory flock has been created along the eastern migration route of the Sandhill Cranes. (Sandhill Cranes are the ones we see at Jasper-Pulaski State Park and all over Northwest Indiana) The Whooping Cranes were captive reared, then released in Wisconsin. These birds were trained to migrate, using an ultralight. This small, slow flying plane guides the young Whooping Cranes on their first journey to Florida, their winter home. The Whooping Cranes are then able to make their way back to Wisconsin come summer. If you’ve seen the movie Fly Away Home, then you know exactly how this was done! As of 2006, this flock numbered 64! Remember those two Whooping Cranes I saw? Those were a bonded pair from this flock.

As of spring 2008, there were a total of 523 Whooping Cranes. 377 of those were living in three separate flocks, while 146 were in captivity. It has taken a long time to get here, but it has certainly been worth it. Whooping Cranes aren’t in the clear just yet, but things are really looking up. Such a different outlook than what we had in 1951!

So, While You’re Passing, keep an eye out for these large beautiful birds. Hopefully, sightings won’t be so rare in the coming years!

If you are interested in more information about Whooping Cranes, check out the website for the International Crane Foundation. -Andrea Locke

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