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Whooping Crane


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.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
59.1 in
150 cm
90.2 in
229 cm
211.6–275.1 oz
6000–7800 g
Relative Size
One of North America’s largest birds. About as tall but much heavier than a Great Blue Heron.
Other Names
  • Grue blanche (French)
  • Grulla blanca (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Weighing 15 pounds, the Whooping Crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet. Also measuring 5 feet in length is its trachea, which coils into its sternum and allows the bird to give a loud call that carries long distances over the marsh. The Whooping Crane probably gets its name from either its single-note guard call or its courtship duet.
  • The Whooping Crane walks with a smooth and stately gait. Its courtship dance is a spectacle of leaping, kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping.
  • In 1941 there were only 21 Whooping Cranes left: 15 were migrants between Canada and Texas while the rest lived year-round in Louisiana. The Louisiana population went extinct, and all 600 of today’s Whooping Cranes (about 440 in the wild and 160 in captivity) are descended from the small flock that breeds in Texas.
  • The only self-sustaining population of Whooping Cranes is the naturally occurring flock that breeds in Canada and winters in Texas. Three reintroduced populations exist with the help of captive breeding programs. One of these is migratory: researchers use ultralight aircraft to teach young cranes to migrate between Wisconsin breeding grounds and Florida wintering grounds.
  • 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.



The 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.



Whooping 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.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–3 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.9 in
9.8 cm
Egg Width
2.4 in
6.2 cm
Incubation Period
29–31 days
Nestling Period
2 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.
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.

Nest Placement


Pairs 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.



Whooping 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.


status via IUCN


The Whooping Crane is listed as federally endangered and is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan rates the species a 16 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and lists them as a Species of High Concern. Thanks to intensive conservation efforts, its population has grown from a low of 21–22 in 1941 to about 600 individuals in 2011 (with around 160 of these in captivity). 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 intentionally 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.


Range Map Help

Whooping Crane Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings


Medium-distance migrant or resident. One population migrates on its own from Canada to Texas. A reintroduced population (Wisconsin–Florida) migrates with the guidance of ultralight aircraft. The other two reintroduced populations (Florida and Louisiana) are nonmigratory.

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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