Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Description: The whooping crane is the largest wading bird in North America, standing 4-5 feet (1.5 m) tall. Its wingspan is 7.5 feet (2.3 m). The adult has a snow white body with contrasting black legs, black wing tips and black markings below the eyes. The top and sides of the adult's head lack feathers and are bright red. Immature birds have a white underside, white secondary feathers and black wingtips. Whoopers will occasionally extend their huge wings and jump a few feet into the air. It has a vibrant trumpetlike call from which it gets its name. It is easily distinguished from the smaller, gray sandhill crane.
Habitat and Habits: The whooping crane prefers freshwater marshes, wet prairies, shallow portions of rivers and reservoirs, grain and stubble fields, shallow lakes and lagoons for feeding and loafing during migration. Overnight roosting sites usually have shallow water in which whoopers stand. It will roost on unvegetated sandbars, wetlands and stockdams. The whooping crane is omnivorous, feeding on both animals and plants, such as insects (grasshoppers, crickets), berries, grains, acorns, fishes, crustaceans, reptiles and amphibians. Whooping cranes are usually found in small groups of seven or fewer individuals. They are easily disturbed when roosting or feeding.
Distribution: The whooping crane formerly nested from central Illinois west to eastern North Dakota and north through the Canadian prairie provinces. It presently breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, Canada. It overwinters on the Texas Gulf Coast on and in the vicinity of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. A second foster population migrates from Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. In South Dakota, the whooping crane is a predictable spring and fall migrant in the Missouri River drainage and in westem South Dakota, with only occasional sightings in the eastem part of the state. This species does not breed in South Dakota.
Conservation Measures: The whooping crane was listed as federally endangered in 1967. Early recovery efforts used the cross-fostering method with sandhill cranes as the foster parents. No foster birds have paired or produced eggs. Cross-fostering of whoopers to the Grays Lake sandhill crane flock has been discontinued because of very high mortality rates and the lack of reproductive success in cross-fostered populations.
An alternative recovery method is the introduction of captive-reared birds specially conditioned for release in the wild. Although this method has been successful with non-migratory populations of sandhill cranes, a migratory flock has not yet been established.
Because of the dangers of long-distance migration, such as accidental and intentional shooting of birds and collisions with powerlines, a new whooping crane restoration effort involves the establishment of a non-migratory flock in Florida.