The Endangered Whooping Crane
The Whooping Crane has long been in danger of complete extinction. This fascinating bird chooses a lifelong partner and is very ritualistic.
A national endangered species since 1967, the Whooping Crane is a much loved and followed bird. Millions of people passionately follow the migratory route of the crane every year, and go to great lengths to protect this passionate bird. Legal protection, public interest and protected breeding grounds have helped this almost extinct bird regain some strength in the U.S. and Canada.
HISTORY AND STATISTICS
The whooping crane suffered greatly in the late 1800's from indiscriminate shooing and habitat disturbance. In 1941, there were only 21 wild whooping cranes in the world. Today, there are 300 in existence. The whooping crane remains on the endangered species list today.
Standing at just over 5 feet tall, the whooping crane is the largest North American bird. Its wingspan is a harrowing 7.5 feet. The male crane is typically slightly larger than the female in both height and weight.
The whooping crane is a long necked, long legged bird that resides mostly in prairie and marsh areas. Adults have completely white plumage, except for black primary feathers located on the wings, legs are bare areas of the head. Immature cranes are rusty brown. As they get older, the brown is replaced with bright white plumage. Migrating young are easy to spot, sporting a brown head and neck, with a mixture of brown and white spots on the body.
The whooping crane got it's name for the loud "whooping cries" they emit while migrating during winter and summer homes. Sounding much like a honking noise, the crane's voice can be heard up to three miles away.
The lifespan of a whooping crane in the wild is 22-24 years.
These cranes are omnivorous feeders. Blessed with long, powerful bills, these birds are able to easily attack and capture snakes, frogs, rodents, small birds, minnows, berries and other small animals. During the winter months, cranes feed mostly on animal foods, especially blue crabs and clams. They also consume forage, acorns, snails, crayfish and insects.
BREEDING AND REPRODUCTION
Whooping cranes are creatures of habit. Largely monogamous, they form life-long bonds with a single mate. Should one of the pair perish, the whooping crane moves on to find another partner. Cranes also breed and nest in the same general area each year.
Female cranes become fertile at the age of 4. The "dance ceremony" that is performed before mating involves both partners. The male and female cranes begin to prance around with their head and necks bent forward and their wings at half-spread. They leap into the air, letting out "whooping" sounds shortly before mating.
In early spring, the female crane lays 1-3 light brown eggs and places them in a large nest. Each egg is approximately 3 inches long, 2 1/2 inches wide, and weighs just over 7 ounces. The incubation period is 29-31 days. The first chick born is usually the only one to survive. Parents often push the second egg out of the nest before it is hatched to allow room for the new chick.
Both sexes share incubation and brood-rearing duties equally, allowing for each partner to get away from the nest to feed. Newly hatched chicks are immediately able to swim and learn to fly within their first 90 days of life, though they seldom take to the air until it is time to migrate.
The crane is territorial and aggressively defend their nests against other cranes. Adjacent nests are usually built at least 1/2 mile from another and their is a common need for personal space among this species.
Whooping cranes migrate most often in pairs, within family groups, or in small flocks. They are diurnal migrants, stopping regularly to rest and feed. Breeding pairs are often the first to arrive and the last to leave an area, allowing for just enough time for the young to learn to fly.
The whooping crane is most widely known for the loud bugling calls they emit during migration periods. The "whooping call" of the crane can be heard more than three miles away.
Cranes travel once a year along the same migration route. Every year, flocks travel about 2, 400 miles from the Northwest Territories breeding grounds to the coast of Texas, where they reside at the Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge.
Whooping crane numbers have diminished greatly recently. Due to slow breeding patterns, the crane cannot reproduce fast enough to protect the species. Attempts are now being made to breed the crane in captivity and to reintroduce eggs into nature, by placing them into the nests of the Sandhill Crane, who then act as foster parents. Although some success has been achieved, the long-term fate of the crane remains largely unknown.