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Scientist Q & A: Whooping Cranes

Record number of whooping cranes spotted at Cheyenne Bottoms during 2009 fall migration.

Cheyenne Bottoms was treated to a rare occurrence this fall – large numbers of the federally endangered whooping cranes stopping to rest and feed. We’ve interviewed Robert Penner, Avian Program Manager for the Kansas Chapter, for his take on this unusual site.

 Q: Wow, it sounds like Cheyenne Bottoms was given a late fall treat with all the whooping cranes stopping by. How many would you estimate visited the Bottoms?

A: I believe we counted around 30 whooping cranes over one week (time period).

Q: That seems like quite a few.

A: Yes, it definitely was. Our usual whooping crane numbers are much lower about 3-12 birds. And our previous record was 18 in the mid-1980s. So this was a surprise.

Q: I imagine that’s a pretty large percentage of the entire whooping crane population?

A: Yes, it’s about one-fifth of the population.

Q: Why do you think so many stopped?

A: First the majority of whooping cranes sighting usually occur in the fall. But they have been observed in the spring. And they stop at the Bottoms because of the conditions. We’ve had a pretty moisture-rich fall, and they love that. If the Bottoms had been remotely dry, I doubt we would have seen any.

Q: Why are most of the sightings in the fall and not the spring?

A: Well, their fall migration is a much more leisurely journey. They’re traveling with their young and taking their time. Spring is their mating season, so they’re anxious to get home.

Q: How many young are they traveling with?

A: A whooping crane couple raises one bird a year. And interestingly, the family group shares the parental duties.

Q: The males and females take responsibility for the young birds?

A: They both keep tabs on the juveniles by making their whooping noise and this dancing jump they do.

Q: Besides size, how would you tell a juvenile apart from an adult?

A: Juveniles are a rusty red color and adults are pure white.

Q: Where are they migrating to and from?

A: Much of the population migrates from Aransas National Park in Texas to their nesting spot at the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.

Q: A very long trip.

A: That’s why the wetland work we do in Kansas along the Central Flyway is so important. It gives them a resting spot on the long migration south.

Q: Beyond it’s key location, why is Cheyenne Bottoms good for whooping cranes?

A: It’s got the entire package. Abundant food in the form of fish, salamanders, and little snakes; it has wide open marshes and the grasslands provide plenty of cover. They can feed and feel safe.

Q: They do have natural predators though?

A: Yes, any large predators like a coyote or bobcat will go after a whooping crane. That’s why they tend to stick to the mudflats and sandbars.

Q: How long do the whooping cranes stay?

A: About a week or maybe less. It depends on the weather.

Q: I expect during the time the cranes were there, the visitation went up.

A: Absolutely. Many visitors want to come out and catch site of these rare birds. Especially this year, as the crane numbers were so exceptional.

Q: Do you expect we’ll have record numbers next year?

A: You never can tell. We know it’s possible. We’ll keep on doing the positive wetland management work we’ve been doing and cross our fingers that the weather cooperates.

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