Whooping Cranes are the tallest birds in North America and probably the most awe-inspiring.
They are also one of the rarest and their recovery is the result of a ambitious success story.
Whooping Cranes are very large, tall birds with long necks and long legs. The bill is stout and straight, and the overall slender body widens to a plump bundle at the tail. In flight the wings are broad and the neck is fully extended, showing its black wingtips not visible when folded. The adults are bright white birds with a red crown and mustache stripe on the head. The legs and bill are also black. Juvenilles have a rusty brown head and mottled back.
These birds are very tall, measuring about 5 feet in height. They have a length of 59.1 inches (150 centimeters) and a wingspan of 90.2 inches (229 centimeters). They weigh 211.6-275.1 ounces (6000-7800 grams).
There are currently four populations of Whooping Cranes. One population migrates on its own from Canada to Texas. A reintroduced population (migrating from Wisconsin to Florida) migrates with the guidance of ultralight aircraft. The other two reintroduced populations (Florida and Louisiana) are nonmigratory.
Whooping Cranes breed in shallow, grassy wetlands scattered with grasslands or scattered evergreens. During migration they stop on wide shallow river flats. They winter mainly in coastal marshes and estuaries. They sometimes forage on crop fields.
Whooping Cranes are omnivores, eating small mammals, snakes, frogs, small aquatic life, and plant material depending on where they are and food availability, using their long bill to stab at prey.
Pairs choose nest sites in shallow, slow-moving water, frequently on small islands. They often take advantage of vegetation that hides the nest and incubating parent from predators. Each year the pair chooses a new nest site, sometimes in the same area. The male and female build the nest together by piling up and trampling vegetation. The finished nest measures 2–5 feet across and has a flat surface or a shallow depression for the eggs. In each clutch, females will lay one to three light brown or olive with brown splotched eggs. Incubation period is 29-31 days, and the hatchlings are covered with down and able to walk and swim within a few hours of hatching.
Whooping Cranes are monogamous, forming pairs at the age of 2 or 3 years and mating for life. The Whooping Crane walks with a smooth and stately gait, but when courting, it is the exact opposite of its calm walk. Courting pairs perform an elaborate, energetic dance display in which they leap, flap their wings, toss their heads, and even fling feathers and grass while singing a loud courtship duet. Each breeding pair has a territory defended primarily by the male, who may attack intruding Whooping Cranes. New pairs often establish a territory near their parents. Whooping Cranes live and travel small flocks, and sometimes flock with Sandhill Cranes. They may ignore or pursue other nearby birds, cattle, and deer. They spend most of their time on the ground and in shallow water. They learn migration routes and nesting locations from other cranes (or from researchers in ultralight aircraft, as part of reintroduction efforts). Their strong homing instinct limits their scattering to new habitats.
Whooping Crane calls include a loud, single-note bugle call lasting less than one second when they are startled. They call in unison when courting. While feeding they give a frequent low purr to keep in contact with each other.
The Whooping Crane is listed as federally endangered, though its population has risen from a low of 21 - 22 in 1941 to about 600 individuals in 2011 (with around 160 of these in captivity). The primary factor threatening the recovery of the species is human development.
- The trachea of the Whooping Crane is 5 feet long, allowing the bird to give a loud call that carries long distances over the marsh. The Whooping Crane probably gets its booming calls.
- The oldest Whooping Crane on record, banded in the Northwest Territories in 1977, was at least 28 years, 4 months old when it was found in Saskatchewan in 2005.
- Whooping Cranes are called Grulla Trompetera (in Spanish) and Grue blanche (in French).