FortWorthZoo Blog – Expedition: Education

The world's only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes spends its winters in Texas

Learn about what conservationists are doing to save this endangered bird

The Whooping Crane: One of the Rarest Birds in North America

Feb. 23rd | Posted by 1 comments

(Photo Credit: Greg Lasley)

Allow me to introduce you to the tallest bird in North America: the whooping crane (Grus americana). The whooping crane stands at an impressive height of almost five feet tall, and its wingspan stretches over seven feet! If you see this bird on land you may think its plumage is entirely white. However, if you are lucky enough to spy a whooping crane soaring in the air, you’ll notice its black wing feathers that are only visible when the bird is in flight. It also has a patch of rusty red on the top of its head.

The whooping crane's black feathers are only visible when the bird is in flight. (Photo Credit: Operation Migration)

Whooping cranes usually travel in small flocks of four or five birds. They stop to roost overnight on the ground, often among larger flocks of birds. This migratory bird will travel long distances to avoid sweltering summers and freezing winters. (We’ve talked about another animal that makes a great migratory flight – can you remember what animal? Click here to find out.)

Whooping cranes are migratory birds and travel in small flocks. (Photo Credit: Operation Migration)

The whooping crane got its name because it is a very vocal bird. (“Whoop” is a word that means “to shout or yell loudly.”) Whoopers call for a variety of reasons such as to frighten predators, to sound an alarm or to locate one another. In the spring during mating season, a pair of whooping cranes may even perform a whooping duet. Whooping crane courting can be quite extravagant. In addition to singing a duet, the birds may dance, bow, hop and flap their wings to attract a mate.

Whooping cranes put on an elaborate show to attract a mate that may involve wing flapping, bowing and dancing. (Photo Credit: Kevin Leigh)

Whooping crane nests are built in marshes or swamps. Young chicks are strong enough to swim, which is useful if they need to escape predators. Compared to many other bird species, the whooping crane lives a long life: between 22 and 30 years. Most of those years are spent with the same mate. Though it is said to mate for life, a whooping crane will find a new mate when its partner dies.

The whooping crane builds its nest in swamps or marshes. Chicks are strong enough to swim if they need to escape predators. (Photo Credit: Klaus Nigge, National Geographic)

Life hasn’t always been easy for whooping cranes. Habitat alteration is one of the leading threats that has caused population numbers to decline. Like flamingos, whooping cranes depend on wetlands to survive. In Texas, this ecosystem provides the whooping crane with its favorite meal: blue crabs. The whooping crane also eats clams, acorns, snails, insects, mice, snakes, berries, frogs and fish. As wetlands continue to be drained to make way for agriculture and other human activities, the whooping crane is having increasing difficulty finding food to eat and places to roost. Because its coastal habitats are close to oceans, the whooping crane is also vulnerable to oil spills.

Habitat alteration is draining some of the coastal wetlands where the whooping crane lives and finds its favorite food: blue crabs. (Photo Credit: Discovery Education)

Another threat is hunting. The whooping crane looks similar to the sandhill crane (which is not endangered) and may travel along with sandhill crane flocks on occasion, so it is sometimes shot by mistake. Remember that the whooping crane is a protected species, so hunting of this species is absolutely prohibited.

At one point, the whooping crane population was believed to be between 15,000 and 20,000 birds. By 1941, there were just 15 birds left. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the whooping crane as endangered in 1967, and conservationists have been working to save these birds since that time.

Today the descendants of the last 15 birds make up the only remaining whooping crane flock that is considered to be truly self-sustaining, meaning the birds are born in the wild and breed, migrate and live on their own without outside help. Every fall, the flock – which today is believed to consist of just under 300 birds – flies from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The whooping cranes enjoy the mild Texas winter and return to Canada in the spring where they spend a pleasant summer. Sometimes their migration path takes them through the Fort Worth area, so keep your eyes out for these majestic creatures when they head back to Canada this spring!

The only self-sustaining flock of whoopers in the world spends its winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Once down to just 15 birds, the population has increased to almost 300 birds today. (Photo Credit Discovery Education)

The Texas drought isn’t making things easy for the whooping crane. Biologists are concerned that the drought has impacted the cranes’ winter habitat. If they are not able to find enough food to keep them healthy, the cranes may not have the strength to make it back to Canada when they migrate north this spring.

Though the drought has been tough, the whooping crane has survived much worse. While biologists are concerned, they remain hopeful that this flock will continue to enjoy many more winters in Texas. However, conservationists all agree that it is important to start flocks in other areas, too. Without other flocks, one disease outbreak or natural disaster could wipe out the entire whooping crane population in Texas.

Here is a map of all the current whooping crane populations. (Photo Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Thanks to captive breeding programs, conservationists have been successful in establishing additional whooping crane flocks. One non-migratory flock lives in central Florida year-round. There is also a migratory flock that spends its summers in Wisconsin and its winters in Florida. How do you teach a flock of captively bred whooping cranes to get from Wisconsin to Florida? You have to show them the way.

Operation Migration is a conservation group that is leading captively bred whooping cranes on a migration journey from Wisconsin to Florida. (Photo Credit: Operation Migration)

The birds are trained to follow a small open-air plane and cover a distance of 1,285 miles. (Photo Credit: Operation Migration)

 With the help of small open-air planes called ultralights, Operation Migration leads this flock of whoopers from Wisconsin to their winter home in Florida, a distance covering 1,285 miles. The small plane looks somewhat like a bird, so the whooping cranes follow. The pilot wears a white suit to mimic the feathers and a fake beak attached to his or her arm. Rain and wind sometimes slow down the flight, but the conservationists behind this program are determined to help the whooping crane. You can keep up with Operation Migration’s whooping crane flights on their website.

Members of Operation Migration wear special suits to look like a whooping crane when interacting with the captively bred birds. (Photo Credit: Operation Migration)

When it is time to make the journey to Florida, the whooping cranes usually cooperate and follow the pilot — who they think is really a bird. (Photo Credit: Operation Migration)

 That’s what’s going on with the whooping crane. So what can you do to help?
  • Learn to tell the difference between a sandhill crane and a whooping crane. The sandhill crane is not endangered and can be hunted for sport with proper licenses and permits, but the whooping crane is endangered and illegal to hunt.
  • Report any whooping crane sightings to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112, extension 4644 or (512) 847-9480 or by e-mail at leeann.linam@tpwd.state.tx.us.
  • Take a trip to Port Aransas for the annual Whooping Crane Festival, held each February. Boat tours, guest speakers, photography workshops and children’s activities are just some of the things you’ll get to enjoy at the event. Can’t make it for the festival? Visit Aransas National Wildlife Refuge anytime between mid-October and March and you should be able to spot some whooping cranes.

Don’t forget: if you have a story to tell about how you’re making a difference for conservation, email me at Sam’s Inbox (safarisam@fortworthzoo.org). You could see your story featured on my blog! Until next time … happy exploring!

 

VOCABULARY

Additional: (adjective) extra, more
Agriculture: (noun) the practice of growing crops, keeping livestock or farming
Avoid: (verb) to keep away from, to stop from happening
Breed: (verb) to produce offspring
Captive breeding program: (noun) the process of animals producing offspring in a human-controlled environment
Coastal: (adjective) bordering or close to where the land meets a large body of water
Concerned: (adjective) to be troubled or worried
Consist (of): (verb) composed or formed of
Court: (verb) to seek attention or love from another individual
Depend (on): (verb) to rely upon, count on or trust in
Descendent: (noun) offspring
Duet: (noun) a musical piece performed by two individuals
Ecosystem: (noun) a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment
Endangered: (adjective) at risk for extinction
Establish: (verb) to set up, organize or bring into being
Extravagant: (adjective) going beyond what is usual or expected, exaggerated, flashy, showy
Habitat: (noun) the natural environment of an organism
Habitat alteration: (noun) change that takes place in a habitat caused by natural or human processes
Impact: (noun) collision, when one thing strikes another
Impressive: (adjective) striking or remarkable
Majestic: (adjective) impressive, regal, grand
Mate: (noun) one member of a breeding pair
Migrate: (verb) to change location periodically, especially by moving seasonally from one region to another
Migratory: (adjective) characterized by migration, tending to change location periodically according to seasonal changes
Mimic: (verb) to copy or imitate
Plumage: (noun) all the feathers covering a bird
Predator: (noun) an animal that lives by capturing and eating other animals
Prohibit: (verb) to prevent or forbid by law
Roost: (verb) to settle or stay, often for the night, on a roost or perch
Self-sustaining: (adjective) able to provide for one’s own needs without help from others
Sweltering: (adjective) extremely hot
Threat: (noun) a warning of likely trouble
Visible: (adjective) able to be seen with the naked eye
Vulnerable: (adjective) easily targeted, likely to be attacked, unprotected, exposed

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    1 comment Add a comment

    1. Jane

      Hi Sam,
      My name is Jane and I’m with Dwellable.
      I was looking for blogs about Port Aransas to share on our site and I came across your post…If you’re open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
      Hope to hear from you soon!
      Jane


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