Genus/Species: Grus americana
Whooping cranes are migratory birds. They live in one place in summer and another place in winter. Migration is the repeated, seasonal journey in response to changing food availability. Cranes migrate by day, following landmarks they’ve memorized.
Weight: 14-17 lb (6.4-7.3 kg)
Wingspan: 7-8 ft (2.1-2.4 m)
Crabs, shrimp, other aquatic animals and plants, berries, crop grains
Whooping cranes migrate from Canada to Texas and from Wisconsin to coastal Florida. Some live year-round in central Florida and Louisiana.
Once in the thousands, by 1941 only 21 whooping cranes remained in the world. Whooping cranes were almost extinct—from human westward expansion, habitat loss and hunting. Today, extraordinary human efforts are bringing them back.
Since 1967, the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Center in Maryland, with four other breeding centers, has been building an “insurance” population. Today, about 25 whooping crane chicks are hand-raised and trained for wild release each year.
How do scientists keep tabs on each bird? Since the cranes all look alike, each chick is banded with a unique color-coded and numbered leg ring. Before release, some birds are outfitted with radio or satellite transmitters so scientists can track them throughout the year.
Whooping cranes still need people’s help to survive, but the magnificence of North America’s tallest bird is deserving and worth it. You can help! If you spot a whooping crane in nature, report it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As whooping cranes neared extinction, U.S. and Canada established protected areas and scientists hatched a plan to “grow” a managed population where male and female cranes are paired off for breeding.
The plan was to incubate eggs and raise chicks to bolster the wild population. But there was one thing no one counted on. Only some females laid eggs.
To discover why some cranes weren’t laying eggs, Zoo scientists collected poop to check the parents’ hormone levels. The scoop on poop revealed that cranes who laid eggs had higher hormone levels than cranes who didn’t. How did the scientists tell whose poop was whose? Crane poop looks white. They added dyes to the cranes’ food which safely passed out color-coded poop! Green for females and red for males.
Crane pairs dance elaborate duets to prepare for breeding. But many females at the breeding center aren’t dancing. Is it because they don’t have a wetland habitat? Zoo scientists are modifying crane enclosures to see if changes in the environment can improve mating dances—and hatching success.
Scientists began reintroducing whooping cranes in 2001 to restore an eastern migratory flock. It takes imagination plus painstaking work, starting with eggs, to teach hand-raised cranes—who have no migration knowledge—how to find their way along a 1,200-mile route.
Crane chicks identify with whoever raises them. So, technicians dress in white costumes and use hand puppets that look like adult cranes. That way, when returned to nature, the young birds recognize whooping cranes—rather than people—as their own kind.
In nature, young cranes learn their migration route from their parents. But breeding center cranes don’t have adults to lead the way. So scientists train the flock to follow an ultralight aircraft on their first trip south. The young cranes only need a guide once; they find their own way back in the spring.
People are working hard to return endangered whooping cranes to nature. The eastern migratory population exists today because reintroduced flocks are taught to migrate by following ultralight aircraft.