The endangered Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America, standing almost 1.5 metres tall with a 2-metre wingspan. This beautiful bird has a pure white body and tail except for a bright red crown and a black “mustache,” black wingtips and long black legs.
The Whooping Crane is one the oldest birds on Earth. Fossils dating back 3.5 million years are identical to the modern “whooper.” This magnificent bird, which survived millions of years of planetary change, became gravely endangered after only a few hundred years of European settlement in North America. The Whooping Crane once nested over most of central and western North America, and was commonly seen stopping over at large marshes in the interior of the continent while migrating south. Today, the majority of whoopers breed in Wood Buffalo National Park, located along the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and they winter only in a small marsh on the coast of Texas.
Being very large birds, Whooping Cranes need very large places to live. As humans settled in the North American prairies, they drained marshes for crops and pastures, and in doing so destroyed the whooper’s home. The only remaining winter habitat is a very narrow strip of marsh on the Texan coast. This area is getting smaller every year because of industrial, urban, and recreational developments. Every year there are fewer large marshes left in central North America for the birds to rest and feed in during their 4,000 km migration.
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In 1941, there were only 21 Whooping Cranes left on Earth. Of these, 6 died in a Louisiana hurricane, leaving 15 whoopers to struggle to preserve the species. By 1979, the population had grown to 75 birds, and in 1995 the number had reached 155.
The number of whoopers in the Wood Buffalo National Park/Aransas National Wildlife Refuge flock has increased by at least 35% in the last ten years and has a population growth of 3.7% per year.
In 2000 there were a total of 51 nesting pairs of cranes, with nine pairs that successfully arrived on the wintering grounds with a single young each. In 2006-07, the Wood Buffalo/Aransas population numbered 237 Whooping Cranes, including 45 chicks; both numbers were record highs. That winter there were 353 whoopers in the wild and 145 birds in captivity, for a total world population of 498 Whooping Cranes. The Whooping Crane is determined to recover, but the only way it can is if we protect its habitat.
Whooping Cranes are protected in Canada and the US under the Migratory Bird Convention Act. The breeding area in Wood Buffalo National Park is protected, and part of the wintering land in Texas has been a wildlife refuge since 1937. Several migration stopover areas have since been protected in the US.
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Habitat quality and food resources are the important factors controlling the species’ numbers. The breeding range in Wood Buffalo National Park is very restricted. Whooping Cranes also face risks during migration, and the concentration of the species in the vicinity of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge makes it susceptible to catastrophic events (e.g., hurricanes, chemical spills). This critical wintering habitat is particularly at risk because it is subject to heavy boat traffic involved in the transport of petrochemicals, resulting in habitat degradation, contamination, and increased possibility of accidental spills.
Of growing concern are the tar sands developments just south of Wood Buffalo National Park. The tar sands and associated tailing ponds are directly in the birds’ migratory pathway. Nature Canada is waging a campaign to have the Government of Canada declare a moratorium on any new tar sands development and implement stricter environmental controls over existing operations.
Whooping Crane Facts
- Whooping Cranes are naturally wary and aggressive, and cannot tolerate human disturbance.
- Adult whoopers weigh about 6 or 7 kilograms.
- Pairs usually mate for life and return to the same nest site each year. The average nesting territory is large, from 400 to 7,000 ha. They build their nests with bulrushes in shallow swampy areas.
- During nesting (but never flight) they make a wild bugling sound that can be heard from 5 km away.
- They lay two eggs, but only one chick survives. Chicks are born in early June and are as big as their parents three months later. Chicks are rusty brown and slowly fade through their first year.
- Favourite foods are insects, seeds, roots, crabs, clams, and snails. During migration they will eat grains from farm crops.
- Using an energy-efficient combination of spiralling and gliding, whoopers have been known to fly nonstop for 10 hours, covering 750 km.