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Whooping Cranes Notecard



Whooping Cranes (Grus americana)

Whooping Cranes are one of the most stately birds in the world and the rarest crane on earth. The tallest birds in North America, Whooping Cranes reach five feet in height and their wingspan spreads more than seven feet. Adults are pure white with red cheeks and forehead, and show long black wing tips in flight. Juveniles are a mottled reddish-brown for the first year, before molting into the regal look of their parents. All cranes can be distinguished from other wading birds by the long tail feathers that droop over their rump, like an old-fashioned bustle.

Whooping Cranes get their name from their powerful bugle call; a ker-loo, ker-lee-loo, heard during their elaborate courtship dances, where they weave, flap and jump high into the air in a great frenzy. Pairs mate for life and share incubation duties.

Known for their arduous 2700 mile migration between their nesting area in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and their wintering site in Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, Whooping Cranes struggle from year to year to survive.

Prior to 1870, Whooping Cranes were widespread; feeding, breeding and nesting in vast wetlands across the north-central United States and in the Northwest Territories of Canada, with an estimated population of 20,000. As settlers moved west, they destroyed much of the Whooping Cranes’ habitat and shot them for food and feathers. By 1937, only 15 remained. Decades of intense habitat protection, captive breeding, and other experimental techniques, in addition to cooperation between governments and conservation groups, brought the population up to around 300 birds in the wild by 2004. However, loss of wetlands and habitat in their migratory routes, collision with power lines, oil spills, disease from environmental stresses, and poaching are still serious threats.

As Peter Matthiesson writes in The Birds of Heaven, “Like emblems of the purity of water, earth and air that is being lost, the white cranes are dependent on pristine wetlands:the fierce nature of the species offers hope that it may yet prevail, but it cannot survive without strong assistance and commitment from the creature that drove it to the abyss of extinction in the first place.”

artwork by John Sill ©2005

text by Kara Jean Hagedorn