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Whooping Crane Life History


MarshesThe only remaining naturally occurring Whooping Crane population spends the winter on the Gulf Coast, primarily in Texas's Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and breeds in Canada's Northwest Territories and Alberta, mainly in Wood Buffalo National Park. Surrounded by the headwaters of four rivers, the Canadian breeding grounds lie on poorly drained soil interspersed with shallow wetlands. The Whooping Cranes nest in potholes dominated by bulrushes and containing other aquatic plants such as cattails, sedge, and muskgrass. These wetlands are divided by narrow ridges that support white and black spruce, tamarack, willows, dwarf birch, Labrador tea, and bearberry. On their Texas wintering grounds, Whooping Cranes spend their time on estuarine marshes, shallow bays, and tidal flats, sometimes venturing to nearby farmland. Salt grass, saltwort, smooth cordgrass, glasswort, and sea oxeye dominate the marshes, with Gulf cordgrass on the margins. Farther inland in their range are sandy, gently rolling grasslands with live oak, red bay, and bluestem plants. Migrating birds feed in croplands and roost in shallow, freshwater wetlands. Back to top


OmnivoreWhooping Cranes eat invertebrates, small vertebrates, and plant material, which they find on the ground and in shallow water. They peck and probe sandy or flooded soils to find prey underground. They also glean insects, berries, and seeds from low vegetation and take prey from the soil surface, using their bills to stab larger animals. The Canada breeding population eats mollusks, crustaceans, aquatic insects, minnows, frogs, snakes, mice, voles, aquatic tubers, and berries, while the Wisconsin breeding population eats mostly aquatic animals. Whooping Cranes also eat waste grains including barley, wheat, and corn from harvested fields, particularly during migration. On the Gulf Coast they feed in brackish bays, marshes, salt flats, and flooded or burned uplands away from human disturbance, eating mostly blue crabs, clams, and other animal foods, along with some plant material such as wolfberry, cranberry, acorns, cordgrass, marsh onions, and prairie lily.Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundPairs choose nest sites in shallow water of marshes, sloughs, or lake margins, 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 vicinity.

Nest Description

The male and female build the nest together by piling up and trampling vegetation such as bulrushes, sedges, and cattails. The nest measures 2–5 feet across and has a flat surface or a shallow depression for the eggs.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-3 eggs
Incubation Period:29-31 days
Egg Description:Light brown or olive with brown splotches.
Condition at Hatching:Covered with down and able to walk and swim within a few hours of hatching.
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ProbingWhooping Cranes are monogamous, forming pairs at the age of 2 or 3 years and mating for life. Courting pairs perform an elaborate, energetic dance display in which they leap, flap their wings, toss their heads, and even fling feathers and grass. Each breeding pair has a territory defended primarily by the male, who may attack intruding Whooping Cranes by running, flapping, hissing, stabbing, or jumping and slashing with his feet. New pairs often establish a territory near their parents. Whooping Cranes live and travel alone, in pairs, as families, or in small flocks of up to 7 birds, and sometimes flock with Sandhill Cranes. They may ignore or pursue other nearby birds, cattle, and deer. They spend their time on the ground and in shallow water, never perching in trees. 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 dispersal to new habitat.Back to top


Restricted Range

The Whooping Crane is listed as federally endangered and is included on the Partners in Flight Watch List-R for species that are not declining but still vulnerable due to a small range or population and moderate threats. Thanks to intensive conservation efforts, the population has grown from a low of 21–22 individuals in 1941 to 802 captive and wild individuals in 2021 (with around 136 in captivity), according to the International Crane Foundation. Partners in Flight rates the species 16 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of high conservation concern.

Whooping Cranes were uncommon but widespread in 19th-century prairie marshes of the northern U.S. and southern Canada and began disappearing with the arrival of agriculture and hunting. They benefited from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916, the establishment of Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922 (three decades before breeding grounds were discovered there), and the 1937 establishment of Texas's Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Today's only self-sustaining population migrates between those two refuges. In 1967, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began captive breeding programs and reintroduction efforts, using Sandhill Cranes as foster parents. The first reintroduction attempt failed, but efforts continue, and three reintroduced populations exist currently, sustained by captive breeding: a resident Florida population, a resident Louisiana population, and a migratory Wisconsin–Florida population. The latter has been taught to migrate with the help of ultralight aircraft. Factors threatening all of these small populations include powerline collisions, severe weather on the Gulf Coast, contaminant spills from barges, and occasional shooting by hunters mistaking them for Sandhill Cranes or cranes intentionally shot by vandals. Habitat management involves water control, restrictions on encroachment of trees and human disturbance, and maintenance of agricultural fields as food sources. The species' future depends on continued intensive conservation.

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