Whooping crane facts, pictures, life cycle and ID guide. Your complete guide to America’s tallest bird!
Whooping Crane Facts At A Glance
- Scientific name: Grus americana
- Height: Approximately 1.5 meters
- Wingspan: Approximately 2.1 to 2.3 meters
- Order: Gruiformes
- Family: Gruidae
- Where found: North America (Canada and United States) in the wild. Reintroduction programs have also established populations in the Eastern US and Western US.
- Habitat: Marshes, wetlands, and prairies with standing water
- Conservation status (Jun 2023): Endangered
The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is the tallest bird in North America, standing at a height of approximately 1.5 meters with a wingspan of 2.1 to 2.3 meters.
Belonging to the Gruidae (crane) family and Gruiformes order, this majestic bird is easily recognized by its distinct whooping sound, long neck, and long legs.
Primarily found in North American wetlands, marshes, and prairies, Whooping Cranes migrate between Canada and the United States.
The species experienced a severe population decline in the 20th century, dropping to just 21 individuals in the wild by 1941 due to habitat loss and overhunting.
Since then, concerted conservation efforts, including reintroduction programs, have helped to partially recover the crane’s population, marking it as a notable success story in wildlife conservation.
However, the whooping crane remains an endangered species, with a wild population of around 500 individuals (2020 figure).
How To Recognize A Whooping Crane
The whooping crane is a striking bird, standing as the tallest in North America. Its white plumage distinguishes it from the native sandhill crane and the common crane (a rare vagrant from Eurasia), both of which are predominantly gray in color.
An adult whooping crane measures approximately 1.5 meters in height and has a wingspan of about 2.1 to 2.3 meters. It possesses a long neck and long legs, both characteristics of the Gruidae family.
The crane’s body is covered in white feathers, with a notable patch of red skin and crown on its head that extends to its cheek patches.
Its primary, or flight, feathers are black and visible only in flight or during certain behaviors.
The bill is long, dark, and pointed, ideal for its diet which mainly consists of crabs, clams, frogs, and aquatic plants.
The eyes of the whooping crane are a vibrant yellow.
Both male and female whooping cranes exhibit the same coloration and plumage, making it difficult to visually differentiate between the sexes.
Where Is The Whooping Crane Found?
The whooping crane is found in North America. Its main breeding ground is in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories. (Site)
Following the breeding season, the cranes migrate south for the winter, predominantly to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, USA. (Site)
In addition to these natural populations, there are also reintroduction programs that have established non-migratory populations in Florida and Louisiana, as well as a reintroduced migratory population that travels between Wisconsin and the southeastern US.
Whooping Crane Habitat
The whooping crane prefers wetlands, marshes, and prairies with standing water. During the breeding season in Canada, they choose areas of the park with shallow ponds and marshes that offer protection from predators.
The chicks are raised in these wetlands until they are ready for migration. When they migrate to Texas for the winter, they inhabit the coastal marshes and estuaries, where they have access to their preferred diet of blue crabs and other small creatures.
The non-migratory populations in Florida and Louisiana also inhabit a variety of wetland habitats. The habitat preferences of whooping cranes can be quite specific, which has made habitat loss a significant threat to the species.
Whooping Crane Life Cycle
The whooping crane’s life cycle begins with courtship and breeding, which occur when the birds return to their Canadian breeding grounds in the spring. These cranes are monogamous, typically forming pair bonds that last for life.
During the courtship period, whooping cranes perform an elegant and complex dance that involves leaping, flapping their wings, bowing, and tossing their heads. This is often accompanied by a loud, trumpeting call that carries over long distances.
After successful courtship, the female lays 1-2 eggs, typically in late April to mid-May. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for approximately 29-31 days. If two eggs are laid, usually only one chick survives, as the older chick may outcompete its sibling for food and parental attention.
Upon hatching, the chicks, or colts, are precocial – they are already covered in downy feathers and can leave the nest within a few hours. They quickly learn to feed themselves under the watchful guidance of their parents, eating insects, small vertebrates, and plants. The parents care for the colts throughout the summer, teaching them necessary survival and migration skills.
The families start their southward migration in late September or early October, travelling over 4000 kilometers from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The colts learn the migration route from their parents.
Whooping cranes reach sexual maturity around 4-5 years of age and can begin breeding. They are long-lived birds and can live up to 25 years in the wild, although some have been known to live even longer in captivity.
Throughout their lives, the cranes continue the cycle of migrating north for breeding and south for the winter.
Why Are Whooping Cranes Endangered?
The whooping crane is endangered primarily due to two factors: habitat loss and overhunting.
Habitat loss has been a significant issue as wetlands across North America have been drained for agriculture and urban development. This is particularly problematic for the whooping crane, which requires specific types of wetland habitats for breeding, migrating, and wintering. Loss of these habitats means loss of places to rest and feed during migration, breed, and spend the winter.
Overhunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also had a devastating impact on the population. Although hunting whooping cranes is now illegal, occasional illegal shooting incidents do still occur.
Other factors that contribute to the whooping crane’s endangered status include environmental disasters, such as oil spills and wildfires, disease, predation, and the potential impact of climate change. The very small population size also makes the species vulnerable to inbreeding and genetic issues.
While conservation efforts have helped increase the population from its lowest point of just 21 birds in 1941, the whooping crane continues to face numerous threats and its recovery remains a significant conservation challenge.
The whooping crane’s entire wild population still numbers around 500 individuals. Fewer than half of these birds are of breeding age.
Related Pages On Active Wild
Learn bird identification: download our North American bird id quiz app for Android: Details
You can see more endangered species on this page: Endangered Animals
You can see more North American animals on this page: North American Animals
You can find out more about birds on this page: Birds – The Ultimate Guide
Discover different types of birds on this page: Types of Birds