By Katie Boord

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) has long fascinated people, especially bird enthusiasts. I never knew much about them until last year, when I wrote a paper about them for school. While I was researching for the paper, the information I found showed me not only how amazing Whooping Cranes are, but how serious their status has become.

Whooping Cranes are the tallest birds in North America, growing up to 5 feet when full grown. The adults are pure white except for a dark red to black moustache and hood, and dark primaries. Young birds are cinnamon brown. The cranes are very social and make loud, bugle-like calls to communicate. They also do something unique to Whoopers and their cousins: they dance, running, leaping, bowing, and flapping their wings.

Whooper_ryanhagertyfwsPhoto by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

I thought all of this was interesting, but what really got my attention was reading about how endangered they were, and still are.

Whooping Cranes used to range all over the U.S. and Canada, though they were most abundant in the Great Plains. But once people discovered that they were fun to shoot (and are apparently tasty), and their feathers were attractive in ladies’ hats, the population declined in great numbers.

The birds reached an all-time low of 15 individuals in 1941. These individuals all belonged to a lone, migratory flock that still breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada and winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Texas. After the Whoopers reached this discouraging number, biologists set out to save them and the species was added to the Endangered Species List in Whooping 1967 and received protection in the U.S. and Canada. Through the efforts of biologists, conservation organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many volunteers, numbers improved, reaching 57 birds in 1970 and 214 in 2005. According to a count made by the Whooping Crane Conservation Association in October 2011, this flock is currently made up of 193 birds, 125 adults, 23 immatures, and 3 undistinguished birds.

Getimage-1.exeWhooping Crane chick, photo by USFWS

Though these numbers were better, this was still the only natural breeding flock of Whooping Cranes left. So some scientists tried introducing some cranes to Idaho. This flock wavered and eventually died off, but eventually they established a non-migratory flock in Florida.

But scientists had yet to support a flock of cranes that could migrate. After years of researching, studying, and just plain hard work, a new flock of Whooping Cranes was established in Wisconsin. But the cranes still didn’t know how to migrate, so biologists found a creative solution. They trained the cranes to follow an ultra-light aircraft. Every year this aircraft leads young cranes all the way from Wisconsin to Florida. This year they led ten, but other years have had more, even reaching 18 one year. The organization leading this effort is called Operation Migration. This year the cranes didn’t make it to Florida but instead wintered at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Alabama.

Ultralight_whoopersWhooping Cranes follow an Ultralight, flown by Operation Migration. Photo by USFWS.

 Organizations like Operation Migration, and others like Journey North, which studies all kinds of migrating animals, are helping the cranes to come back from near extinction. The total population of Whooping Cranes is now about 380 birds.

This is better than fifteen, but it is far from enough. The population still faces serious threats, including habitat loss, hunting, and collisions with power lines and other man-made structures.

One of the newest and most serious threats to Whooping Crane habitat is tar sands oil mining in Alberta, Canada. According to the National Wildlife Federation, tar sands oil is one of the most destructive, dirty, and costly the kinds of fuel in the world. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most valuable. Even more unfortunately, the last natural flock of Whooping Cranes breeds in Alberta, as so do hundreds of other species. Over 1600 waterfowl drowned last year by landing in the toxic sludge, and countless other species . Even after the mining is finished, it leaves a wasteland that is unsuitable for most wildlife, including cranes.

Whoopingcrane_stevehillebrandfwsPhoto by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS.

Although Whooping Cranes are a protected species and hunting them is illegal, sometimes people kill them, either for food or fun. If you see anyone doing this, I probably don’t need to tell you to report the activity. Illegal hunting also happens occasionally by accident. Just last year, when Illinois allowed the hunting of Sandhill Cranes, a man shot two Whoopers, thinking they were Sandhills.

Whooping Cranes are amazing birds, no doubt. But there is still much to be done to recover the species. Once that happens, we will have another beautiful, unique, and interesting bird to watch, study, and enjoy into the future.

DSC05110About the author: Katie Boord is a twelve-year-old homeschooled birder from Northwest Mississippi. She doesn't know when she started loving nature, but she started birding in 2005, when she was six years old. Katie is the second oldest of seven children, with one older brother and five younger ones. She moved to Mississippi in 2010, after living in upstate New York for five years. Before that she lived in St. Louis, Missouri. She has birded in other states as well, including Maryland, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. Katie's favorite places to bird are George Landis Arboretum in Esperance, NY, Arkabutla Lake, which is half in Horn Lake, MS, and half in Coldwater, MS, and anywhere on the Chesapeake Bay. When not birding, Katie likes to sing, play violin and piano, play soccer, shoot with her archery league. Read more of Katie's writing on her blog, Katydids and Bluebirds, where she posts regularly.


National Wildlife Federation:

International Crane Foundation

Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds

Operation Migration

Whooping Crane Conservation Association