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Whooping Crane

Grus americana ORDER: GRUIFORMES FAMILY: GRUIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Endangered

The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America and one of the most awe-inspiring, with its snowy white plumage, crimson cap, bugling call, and graceful courtship dance. It's also among our rarest birds and a testament to the tenacity and creativity of conservation biologists. The species declined to around 20 birds in the 1940s but, through captive breeding, wetland management, and an innovative program that teaches young cranes how to migrate, numbers have risen to about 600 today.

Keys to identification Help

Heronlike
Heronlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Whooping Cranes are very large, tall birds with long necks and long legs. The bill is stout and straight; the overall slender body widens to a plump “bustle” at the tail. In flight the wings are broad and the neck is fully extended.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults are bright white birds with accents of red on the head. The legs, bill, and wingtips are black. Immatures are whitish below but mottled brownish-rusty above.

  • Behavior

    Whooping Cranes move at a stately pace, browsing and probing for food rather than hunting patiently and stealthily like a heron. They tend to occur in small flocks (or among much larger numbers of Sandhill Cranes) rather than singly.

  • Habitat

    Whooping Cranes breed in shallow, grassy wetlands interspersed with grasslands or scattered evergreens. During migration they stop over on wide shallow river flats. They winter mainly in coastal marshes and estuaries. They sometimes forage at crop fields.

Range Map Help

Whooping Crane Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adults

    Whooping Crane

    Adults
    • Very large, graceful cranes
    • Snowy white overall with dark red crown and mustache stripe
    • Long black legs
    • Thick bill pinkish at base, grayer near tip
    • © Lora Render, Rockport, Texas, March 2011
  • Adult

    Whooping Crane

    Adult
    • Very large white crane
    • Tall, graceful proportions
    • Dark red crown and mustache stripe
    • Bill pinkish at base
    • © Roy Brown Photography, Georgia, December 2010
  • Immature

    Whooping Crane

    Immature
    • Similar proportions to adult
    • Mostly white on body, mixed with rusty tan
    • Mostly rusty head and neck
    • © Stephen Pollard, Aransas County, Texas, January 2009
  • Adults with immature

    Whooping Crane

    Adults with immature
    • Very large, stately crane
    • Adults snowy white overall with dark red crowns and mustaches
    • Immature mostly white with rusty coloration on head and neck
    • © Stephen Pollard, Aransas NWR, Texas, January 2009
  • Adult

    Whooping Crane

    Adult
    • Very tall, all-white crane
    • Dark red crown
    • Black wing-tips
    • Thick bill pinkish at base
    • © Norman Carl, Baraboo, Wisconsin, September 2009
  • Adults

    Whooping Crane

    Adults
    • Very large crane with long neck and legs
    • Distinctive in flight with bright white bodies and black wing-tips
    • Dark crown and mustache stripe stripe
    • © Danny Bales, Florida, January 2009
  • Adults

    Whooping Crane

    Adults
    • Large white cranes with black wing-tips
    • Distinctive in flight with long necks and legs trailing behind
    • Dark crown
    • © Ed Schneider, Ashland City, Tennessee, December 2008
  • Adult

    Whooping Crane

    Adult
  • Adult

    Whooping Crane

    Adult
  • Immature

    Whooping Crane

    Immature
  • Adults with Immature

    Whooping Crane

    Adults with Immature

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Sandhill Crane

    Adult
    • Similar in shape to Whooping Crane, but slightly smaller
    • Ashy gray overall
    • Pale face with no dark mustache
    • Solid black bill
    • © Laura Erickson, Florida, December 2005
  • Adult

    Great Egret

    Adult
    • Smaller and more slender than Whooping Crane
    • Flies with long neck curled and tucked in
    • Slender, pointed orange-yellow bill
    • No black on wing-tips
    • © Greg Bishop, Orlando, Florida, November 2008
  • Adults

    American White Pelican

    Adults
    • Stockier than Whooping Crane
    • Neck tucked in against body
    • Short legs don't trail far behind tail
    • Black extends along trailing edge of wings
    • © Ross Michaels, Cherry Creek State Park, Colorado, April 2010
  • Adult white morph

    Snow Goose

    Adult white morph
    • Much smaller and stockier than Whooping Crane
    • Short legs don't extend past tail in flight
    • Stubby pink bill
    • Solid white head
    • © Michael Hogan, Forsythe NWR, New Jersey, March 2006

Similar Species

Sandhill Cranes are slightly smaller than Whooping Cranes and they are slate gray rather than white. Great Egrets have a stouter, sharper, yellow bill, and they lack the Whooping Crane’s red head markings and black wingtips. Herons and egrets fly with their necks folded so that the head is drawn in toward the shoulders; they are much more common and widespread than the endangered Whooping Crane.

Find This Bird

The best place to find Whooping Cranes is during winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. In summer, this population breeds in remote Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. During migration, you may find Whooping Cranes at classic stopover sites such as Nebraska’s Platte River. Look for Whooping Cranes among much larger numbers of Sandhill Cranes, which are themselves a thrilling sight for a bird watcher.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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