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Overview

Brief Summary

Description

Whooping cranes represent one of the best-known conservation stories in North America and these elegant birds have captured public imagination. Whooping cranes have almost entirely white plumage, with the exception of red and black markings on the face and black tips to the wings, which are only visible when out-stretched (5). Juveniles are a reddish-cinnamon colour, becoming mottled over time until the full snow-white feathers are achieved by the end of their second summer (6). These cranes are the tallest birds in North America, and males may reach up to 1.5 metres in height (5). When flying, the neck is stretched out in front and the thin, black legs trail behind (5).
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Biology

Whooping cranes are monogamous and generally mate for life, once they have reached sexual maturity at three to five years of age (6). These birds undertake a spectacular migration of over 4,000 kilometres from summer nesting grounds in the north, to winter feeding grounds in the south (5). As the days get longer and spring approaches, the flock on the winter site becomes restless; dancing, calling and flying before family groups and pairs finally begin the journey north (6). Birds arrive at the breeding area in April and pairs return to the same nesting territory over consecutive years. Generally a clutch of two eggs is laid although only one chick is usually reared to maturity (5). Both parents take part in incubating and rearing the chick, which hatches after roughly one month (5). In September, the first individuals leave for the return migration south as the cold begins to set in (5). These birds are omnivorous, feeding on a range of wetland species. Preferred winter foods include blue crabs and clams, whilst in the summer aquatic invertebrates, small fish, frogs and berries may be consumed (6). During migration the birds primary source of food is waste grain in agricultural fields (5).
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Distribution

Global Range: (1000-5000 square km (about 400-2000 square miles)) The historical range extended from the Arctic coast of North Amercica south to central Mexico, and from Utah east to New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; in the 19th and 20th centuries, nesting occurred principally in the region extending from central Canada to the north-central United States (see CWS and USFWS 2007). Current distribution includes just three populations: (1) the Aransas-Wood Buffalo National Park Population that nests in Wood Buffalo National Park and adjacent areas in Canada (south-central Mackenzie and adjacent northern Alberta) and winters in coastal marshes in Texas, with significant migration stopovers in southern Saskatchewan, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma; (2) a reintroduced non-migratory Florida Population that occurs in central Florida; and (3) a reintroduced Eastern Migratory Population that migrates between Wisconsin (Necedah National Wildlife Refuge) and Florida (Chassahowitzka NWR) (CWS and USFWS 2007).

Extent of occurrence (breeding) appears to be less than 5,000 square kilometers.

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Grus americana is a native migratory bird species within the Nearctic region. The historical breeding range extends throughout the central United States and Canada and also used to include parts of north central Mexico. Few wild populations occur today. One population breeds within the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and overwinters along the Gulf Coast in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge of Texas. A second, minute population spends the summer in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and migrates to their wintering grounds in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. A third introduced, non-migratory population resides in the Kissimmee Prairie, Florida. When the Wood Buffalo and Rocky Mountain populations migrate, they stop over in the United States and Canada, in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana, and Saskatchewan.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

  • Allen, R. 1952. The Whooping Crane: Research Report No. 3 of the National Audubon Society. New York, NY: National Audubon Society.
  • Armbruster, M. 1990. Characterization of Habitat Used by Whooping Cranes During Migration. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Biological Report, 90(4): 1-16.
  • Doughty, R. 1989. Return of the Whooping Crane. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Hayes, M., A. Lacy, J. Barzen, S. Zimorski, K. Hall, K. Suzuki. 2007. An Unusual Journey of Non-migratory Whooping Cranes. Southeastern Naturalist, 6(3): 551-558.
  • Hughes, J. 2008. Cranes: A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis. Richmond Hill: Firefly Books.
  • Johnsgard, P. 1983. Cranes of the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Kuyt, E. 1993. Whooping Crane, Grus americana, Home Range and Breeding range expansion in Wood Buffalo National Park, 1970-1991. The Canadian Field-Naturalist, 107(1): 1-12.
  • Lewis, J. 1995. Whooping Crane Grus americana. The Birds of North America, 153: 1-28.
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Range Description

Grus americana declined from historic estimates of >10,000 prior to European settlement of North America to 1,300-1,400 birds by 1870, and only 15 adults in 1938 (CWS and USFWS 2007). The three wild populations totalled 385 in December 2008 (Stehn 2008), including two reintroduced populations in the eastern U.S. that are not yet self-sustaining. The only natural wild population breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park, on the border of Northwest Territories and Alberta, Canada, and winters at and near to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, USA (Meine and Archibald 1996). It totalled 266 birds in 2007 (T. Stehn, in litt. 2007), with 65 active nests (B. Johns, in litt. 2007), followed by a record 270 birds in spring 2008 (Archibald 2009), dropping to 247 in spring 2009 (Archibald 2009) following a drought in the wintering quarters in Texas. A reintroduced, non-migratory flock in Florida numbered c.41 individuals in 2007, with additional releases put on hold (T. Stehn, in litt. 2007). A reintroduced flock migrates between Wisconsin and Florida, numbering 75 birds in 2007 (T. Stehn, in litt. 2007), increasing to c.90 birds in 2008 (Stehn 2008). A new reintroduced flock comprising 10 juveniles was established in south-western Louisiana in early 2011 (Zimorski 2011). The first wild born chick fledged in Wisconsin and migrated successfully in 2006 (T. Stehn, in litt. 2007) and another wild born chick hatched in June 2009 (Garland and Peterson 2009). Captive flocks totalled 151 birds in 2008 at 5 breeding centres and 6 display facilities in the USA and Canada (Stehn 2008). Overall, the global wild population has increased in numbers since 1938.

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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Breeding

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Non-breeding

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Historic Range:

Canada, U.S.A. (Rocky Mountains east to Carolinas), Mexico
Ex.Pop. WI,FL

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Range

Breeds n Canada; winters coastal se Texas.
  • Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/

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The whooping crane is found only in North America [3]. Historically its
range extended from the Arctic coast south to central Mexico and from
the Rocky Mountain region in Utah eastward to the Atlantic coast [3,10].
Only two populations exist today [11]. The only known breeding
population of whooping cranes nests in and around Wood Buffalo National
Park in the southern Northwest Territories and northern Alberta. This
population winters along the coast of Texas near Corpus Christi on the
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Matagorda Island, Isla San Jose, and
portions of the Lamar Peninsula and Welder Point, which is on the east
side of San Antonio Bay known as Welder Point. Some occur occasionally
on nearby farmlands [3,10]. The migration route includes much of the
Great Plains region between northern Canada and the Texas coast [3,11].
This route passes through northeastern Alberta, southwestern
Saskatchewan, northeastern Montana, western and central North and South
Dakota, central Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and east-central Texas [10].

Using greater sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis tabida) as foster
parents, a second flock was established at Grays Lake National Wildlife
Refuge in southeastern Idaho in 1975 [11]. This population summers in
the vicinity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes
Yellowstone National Park; Grays Lake, Island Park, and Teton Basin in
Idaho; Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming; and the Centennial Valley in
Montana [3]. These whooping cranes winter with greater sandhill cranes
in the Rio Grande area of south-central New Mexico [7].

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Regional Distribution in the Western United States

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This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):

7 Lower Basin and Range
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
14 Great Plains
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands

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Occurrence in North America

ID MT NM TX WY AB NT SK

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Range

Previously, whooping cranes were found over much of North America, from the Arctic coast in the north to central Mexico, and from Utah in the west to New Jersey and Florida (6). By the mid-20th Century however, the migratory population had declined to just 16 individuals and the non-migratory population in Louisiana had disappeared completely (7). Following a massive conservation effort, a self-sustaining population exists today, breeding in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and spending the winter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast (8). A non-migratory population has also been introduced to Kissimmee Prairie in Florida (6) and a migratory population is currently being established that will summer in Wisconsin and winter in Florida (9).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Adult whooping cranes are large, long-legged birds with long necks that measure 130 to 160 cm in length, and feature a wingspan of 200 to 230 cm. They are primarily white in color. Their primary wing feathers and long legs are black, while their toes are grayish-rose in color. The crown, lores, and malar areas are bare skin that varies in color from bright red to black. The bare skin is covered in short, black bristles that are the most dense around the edges of bare skin. They feature yellow eyes and a bill that is pinkish at the base, but mostly gray or olive in color. Both sexes resemble each other, however, the male whooping crane weighs more. Adult males and adult females weigh an average of 7.3 kg and 6.4 kg respectively. Young whooping crane chicks are cinnamon or brown in color along the back and a dull gray or brown on the underbelly. Juvenile whooping cranes have feather-covered heads and white plumage which is blotched cinnamon or brown. The area of the crown which becomes bare skin has short feathers.

Closely related sandhill cranes are gray and smaller than whooping cranes but they may appear white, especially in the sun. In flight, wood storks resemble whooping cranes, but they feature black secondary as well as primary feathers, yellow feet, and a short neck that is bare, dark skin.

Range mass: 4.5 to 8.5 kg.

Range length: 130 to 160 cm.

Average length: 150 cm.

Range wingspan: 200 to 230 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; male larger

  • 2003. Cranes. Pp. 23-36 in J Jackson, W Bock, D Olendorf, eds. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, Second Edition. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.
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Size

Length: 132 cm

Weight: 5826 grams

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Diagnostic Description

Differs from sandhill crane in being mainly white instead of gray. Differs from white ibis in being larger and having a straight bill rather than a decurved one. Differs from white herons and egrets in having black primaries and red facial skin. Differs from snow goose in having much longer legs and neck. Differs from white swans in having black primaries, much longer legs, and a pointed bill.

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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
It breeds in prairie wetlands, preferring small, shallow lakes and ponds, willow communities, marshes, mudflats and perhaps sedge meadows, but this may be atypical considering its historical range (Archibald and Meine 1996, Timoney 1999). Eggs are laid from late April to mid-May (Archibald and Meine 1996). It winters in coastal brackish wetlands.


Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
  • Marine
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Whooping crane habitat, especially for nesting, consists of open areas close to large amounts of water and vegetation. The open area is especially important to visually detect possible predators. Whooping cranes nest in wetland and marsh areas or close to shallow ponds or lakes. Bulrush (Scirpus validus) marshes and diatom ponds are common and bogs are avoided. The habitats chosen typically include willow, sedge meadows, mudflats, and bulrush and cattail (Typha latifolia) marshes. These habitat types not only provide protection for predators but also provide a variety of food opportunities. During migration, whooping cranes seek similar habitats in wetlands, submerged sandbars and agricultural fields. In the winter, wet habitats are also sought out in the form of brackish bays and coastal marshes. Grus americana prefers marshes with a typical pH range of 7.6 to 8.3.

The elevation varies considerably due to the wintering and breeding ranges for whooping cranes. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Mexico is at low elevations between 0 to 10 m. The northern breeding grounds in the Wood Buffalo National Park can reach elevations of up to 945 m.

Range elevation: 0 to 945 m.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland

Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; coastal ; brackish water

Wetlands: marsh ; swamp

Other Habitat Features: agricultural

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Comments: Nesting occurs in dense emergent vegetation (sedge, bulrush) in shallow (often slightly alkaline) ponds (Kuyt 1995), freshwater marshes, wet prairies, or along lake margins. Pothole breeding sites in Canada are separated by narrow ridges vegetated by black spruce, tamarack, and willow. The nest is a mound of marsh vegetation rising about 20-50 centimeters above the surrounding water level.

Habitat during migration and winter includes marshes, shallow lakes, lagoons, salt flats, grain and stubble fields, and barrier islands (AOU 1983, Matthews and Moseley 1990). Radio-marked migrants roosted primarily in palustrine wetlands, many of which were smaller than 0.5 hectares (Howe 1989). Migration habitat includes mainly sites with good horizontal visibility, water depth of 30 centimeters or less, and minimum wetland size of 0.04 hectares for roosting (Armbruster 1990, which see for further details).

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Preferred Habitat

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Nesting habitat - Whooping cranes breed and nest along lake margins or
among rushes and sedges in marshes and meadows [1,3,7,10,11]. The water
in these wetlands is anywhere from 8 to 10 inches (20-25 cm) to as much
as 18 inches (46 cm) deep. Many of the ponds have border growths of
bulrushes and cattails, which occasionally cover entire bays and arms of
the larger lakes. Nesting has also been reported on muskrat houses and
on damp prairie sites [7]. Whooping cranes prefer sites with minimal
human disturbance [3].

Winter habitat - Whooping cranes winter on estuarine marshes, shallow
bays, and tidal salt flats [11]. The salt flats vary under differing
tidal conditions from dry sandy flats to pools of salt water up to 3
feet (1 m) deep [7]. Whooping cranes stop on wetlands, river bottoms,
and agricultural lands along their migration route [11].

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Associated Plant Communities

More info for the term: bog

Whooping cranes' nesting grounds consist of wetland communities
dominated by bulrush (Scirpus valicus). Cattail (Typha spp.), water
sedge (Carex aquatilis), musk-grass (Chara spp.), slim-stem reedgrass
(Calamagrostis neglecta), and spikerush (Eleocharis spp.) are also
common [7,10]. These wetlands are separated by narrow ridges which
support an overstory of black spruce (Picea mariana), tamarack (Larix
laricina), and willow (Salix spp.) and an understory of bog birch
(Betula glandulosa), Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum), and bearberry
(Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) [10].

The salt flats of their wintering grounds are dominated by coastal
saltgrass (Distichlis spicata var. spicata), saltwort (Batis maritima),
smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), glasswort (Salicornia spp.),
bushy sea-oxeye (Borrichia flutescens), and gulf cordgrass (S.
spartinae) [7,10]. The upland portion of the wintering grounds is
predominately live oak (Quercus virginiana) and redbay (Persea borbonia)
[10].

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Cover Requirements

Wetlands provide the whooping crane with protection from terrestrial
predators [10].

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Habitat: Ecosystem

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This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):

FRES15 Oak-hickory
FRES17 Elm-ash-cottonwood
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES37 Mountain meadows
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES39 Prairie
FRES41 Wet grasslands

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Habitat: Cover Types

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This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):

12 Black spruce
38 Tamarack
40 Post oak - blackjack oak
63 Cottonwood
88 Willow oak - water oak - diamondleaf oak
203 Balsam poplar
235 Cottonwood - willow
253 Black spruce - white spruce

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Habitat: Plant Associations

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This species is known to occur in association with the following plant community types (as classified by Küchler 1964):

K063 Foothills prairie
K066 Wheatgrass - needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass - bluestem - needlegrass
K068 Wheatgrass - grama - buffalograss
K069 Bluestem - grama prairie
K072 Sea oats prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K076 Blackland prairie
K077 Bluestem - sacahuista prairie
K078 Southern cordgrass prairie
K084 Cross Timbers
K098 Northern floodplain forest
K100 Oak - hickory forest

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The main population of whooping cranes is migratory; the summer nesting grounds are poorly drained wetlands, whilst the population overwinters in salt marshes in the south (5) (6).
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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Now migrates mainly through Great Plains from southern Canada and Dakotas south to Texas (arrives around mid-October). Introduced individuals migrate from Idaho (also Utah, Montana, and Wyoming) south primarily to central New Mexico (this population is headed for extirpation). Pairs or family groups begin northward migration early to mid-April. An 85,000 sq km area in Saskatchewan appears to serve as a premigratory staging area in fall, but there are no critical, traditional wetlands used elsewhere by migrants (Howe 1989). Spring migrants use Platte Valley during northward migration. See Howe (1989) for information on migration between Texas and Saskatchewan (distribution patterns of radio-tracked individuals differed greatly from distributions derived from opportunistic sightings). See also Johnsgard (1991) for details on spring and fall migration.

An attempt to establish a nonmigratory population in Florida was underway in the early 1990s.

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Trophic Strategy

Whooping cranes are omnivorous and eat a variety of plant and animal material both on the ground and in water. The primary wintering foods are blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) and wolfberry fruits (Lycium carolinianum). Other wintering foods include: clams, acorns, snails, grasshoppers, mice, voles and, snakes. Among foods they eat in winter, blue crabs provide the highest crude protein value and wolfberries have the highest metabolic energy and lipid content. On migratory stopovers through the central United States and Saskatchewan, whooping cranes feed on plant tubers and waste grains in agricultural fields. While on breeding grounds their diet consists of minnows, insects, frogs, snakes, mice, berries, crayfish, clams and snails.

Animal Foods: mammals; amphibians; reptiles; fish; insects; mollusks; terrestrial worms; aquatic crustaceans

Plant Foods: roots and tubers; seeds, grains, and nuts; fruit

Primary Diet: omnivore

  • Butzler, R., S. Davis. 2006. Growth patterns of Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum L.) in the salt marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, USA. Wetlands, 26(3): 845-853.
  • Nelson, J., D. Slack, G. Gee. 1996. Nutritional Value of Winter Foods for Whooping Cranes. The Wilson Bulletin, 108(4): 728-739.
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Comments: During summer, feeds on insects, crustaceans, and berries; winter diet includes grains, acorns, wolfberry fruit, insects, crustaceans (e.g., blue crab, crayfish), mollusks (e.g., the clam TAGELLUS PLEBIUS and the snail MELAMPUS COFFEUS), fishes, amphibians, reptiles, marine worms (USFWS 1980, Hunt and Slack 1989). Blue crabs obtained from flooded tidal flats and sloughs dominate diet in Texas until January; then cranes move to shallow bays and channels to eat clams and an occasional crab (Matthews and Moseley 1990). Radio-marked migrants fed primarily in a variety of croplands (Howe 1989). Probes in mud or sand in or near shallow water, takes prey from water column, or picks items from substrate (Ehrlich et al. 1992).

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Food Habits

More info for the term: marsh

Whooping cranes are omnivorous feeders. Some of the more common food
items taken are crabs, clams, shrimp, snails, frogs, snakes,
grasshoppers, larval and nymph forms of flies, beetles, water bugs,
birds and small mammals [1,3,10]. They eat over 58 species of fish [1].

During the fall, whooping cranes eat blue crabs (Callinectes sapiden)
almost exclusively. In December and January the tidal flats and sloughs
drain and the birds move into shallow bays and channels to forage. In
these areas whooping cranes feed primarily on clams of at least six
species. Clams are important food items during periods of low water and
cold temperatures, and during drought when high salinities reduce the
blue crab population [10]. Plants commonly eaten include saltgrass
(Distichlis spp.), three-square rush, beaked spikerush (Eleocharis
rostellata), marsh onion, saltwort, and the acorns of live oak, pin oak
(Quercus palustris), and blackjack oak (Q. marilandica) [1].

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Associations

Whooping cranes are both predators and prey to a number of species. Because there are so few of them, they probably can't serve as the main prey to another species. Whooping cranes do play host to some parasites, and Coccidia parasites in particular. These have been found in both captive and wild whooping cranes and are transmitted through feces. These parasites include Eimeria gruis and E. reichenowi. Coccidiosis is less likely to occur in wild populations due to the large territory and small brood size of whooping cranes.

Commensal/Parasitic Species:

  • coccidia endoparasites (Eimeria gruis)
  • coccidia endoparasites (Eimeria reichenowi)

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Whooping cranes are subject to predation from both terrestrial and aerial predators Some common terrestrial predators include black bear, wolverines, gray wolves, red foxes, lynx, bobcats, coyotes, and raccoons. Bald eagles, northern ravens, and golden eagles are all aerial predators of cranes. Golden eagles have been reported to attack whooping cranes in the air and are a significant threat during migration. Whooping cranes fly at very high altitudes during migration, which may be a strategy to avoid these fatal aerial attacks.

Whooping cranes are the most vulnerable in the first year and especially up until fledging. Dry years make the young particularly vulnerable as the nests are easily accessible to terrestrial predators. They have a number of strategies for preventing attacks such as alarm calls or a distraction display for large predators. The most common display is a slow walk strut, with the body turned sideways to the predator and the feet lifted high. This emphasizes the crane's large size and may deter an attack. If the predator persists, a whooping crane lowers its bill to the ground and releases a low growl. As a final warning before a physical attack, a crane will face the predator, and spread and droop its wings while extending its neck. When a large predator nears the nest, the incubating parent may leave the nest to lure the predator away by dragging its wing in a distraction display.

Known Predators:

  • black bears (Ursus americanus)
  • wolverines (Gulo luscus)
  • gray wolves (Canis lupus)
  • red foxes (Vulpes vulpes)
  • lynx (Lynx canadensis)
  • bobcats (Lynx rufus)
  • coyotes (Canis latrans)
  • raccoons (Procyon lotor)
  • golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos)
  • bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
  • northern ravens (Corvus corax)

  • Cole, G., N. Thomas, M. Spalding, R. Stroud, R. Urbanek, B. Hartup. 2009. Postmortem Evaluation of Reintroduced Migratory Whooping Cranes in Eastern North America. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 45(1): 29-40.
  • Ellis, D., K. Clegg, J. Lewis, E. Spaulding. 1999. Golden Eagle Predation on Experimental Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. The Condor, 101(3): 664-666.
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Predators

Potential predators of the whooping crane include the black bear (Ursus
americanus), wolverine (Gulo luscus), gray wolf (Canis lupus), red fox
(Vulpes fulva), lynx (Lynx canadensis), and raven (Corvus corax) [1,10].

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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: 1 - 5

Comments: Three populations currently exist (see Range Extent comments).

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Global Abundance

50 - 250 individuals

Comments: The total wild population in February 2006 was estimated at 338. Fewer than 250 are mature in the only self-sustaining population; for example, in 2005, 58 of the 72 known adult pairs in the Canadian population nested (Brian Johns, CWS, pers. comm.).

The February 2006 population included: 215 individuals in the only self-sustaining Aransas-Wood Buffalo National Park Population that nests in Wood Buffalo National Park and adjacent areas in Canada and winters in coastal marshes in Texas; 59 captive-raised individuals released in an effort to establish a non-migratory Florida Population in central Florida; and 64 individuals introduced between 2001 and 2005 that migrate between Wisconsin and Florida in an eastern migratory population. The last remaining wild bird in the reintroduced Rocky Mountain Population died in the spring, 2002. The captive population contained 135 birds in February, 2006, with annual production from the Calgary Zoo, International Crane Foundation, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Species Survival Center, and the San Antonio Zoo. The total population of wild and captive whooping cranes in February, 2006, was 473.

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General Ecology

Population has exhibited 10-year periodicity (Boyce and Miller 1985, Dennis et al. 1991).

Mated pairs and families establish and defend winter territories on coastal marshes in Texas. Breeding territories are very large, averaging 770 ha (Johnsgard 1991). Home ranges of breeding pairs in Canada were about 3-19 sq km (Kuyt 1993).

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Timing of Major Life History Events

More info for the term: selection

Courtship - Mate selection occurs on the wintering grounds or during
migration [11]. Whooping cranes are monogamous and normally pair for
life; they will remate following the death of a mate. Each pair returns
to the previous year's breeding territory but constructs a new nest
[7,11].

Migration - Whooping cranes generally arrive on the breeding grounds
during late April [10]. The southward migration begins anywhere from
mid-September to mid-October and normally all cranes are on their
wintering grounds by mid-November [4,10]. Occasional stragglers may
arrive in late December [10].

Age of first reproduction - Whooping cranes become sexually mature
between 4 and 6 years of age [3,7,11].

Egg laying and incubation - Whooping cranes generally lay two eggs, 2
days apart, in late April or early May. Both sexes incubate [7].
Incubation period is between 29 and 34 days [3,7,10,11].

Fledging - Whooping cranes fledge between 78 and 90 days [3]. Young
whooping cranes are fed by both parents for an extended time during
their first fall and winter of life and are not independent until they
are gradually adandoned by their parents the following spring [7].
Usually only one chick survives [11].

Life span - Whooping cranes live an average of 22 to 24 years [11].

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Habitat-related Fire Effects

On the whooping cranes' upland wintering grounds, fires burn off dead
grasses, making acorns very easy to obtain. Fires on the cranes'
nesting grounds are generally caused by lightning during drought
conditions. These fires could destroy vegetation, making eggs and
chicks more susceptible to predation [10].

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

The key form of communication for whooping cranes is vocal communication. Many calls have been identified for this species including: contact calls, stress calls, distress calls, food-begging calls, flight-intention calls, alarm calls, hissing, flight calls, guard calls, location calls, precopulation calls, unison calls, and nesting calls. Territory defense is linked with the unison and guard calls. Unison calls are also important in pair formation. The calls of whooping cranes are important as they serve in deterring predators, warnings of attack, protecting and caring for the young, and locating other individuals within the species. Like all birds, whooping cranes perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic

Other Communication Modes: duets

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

The estimated longevity of wild whooping cranes is 22 to over 30 years. In captivity, the birds are expected to live up to 35 to 40 years old. The mortality of whooping cranes in their first year is approximately 27%. The survival rate of females for their first year is 55% the survival rate of males. Diseases, such as avian tuberculosis and avian cholera, are possible mortality causes for whooping cranes. A cause of mortality of some captive chicks has been intestinal coccidia parasites. Drought during the breeding season results in greater mortality of the young, since they have to travel farther for food resources and are at risk of attack by terrestrial predators.

Typical lifespan

Status: wild:
22 to 30 years.

Typical lifespan

Status: captivity:
35 to 40 years.

  • Forrester, D., J. Carpenter, D. Blankinship. 1978. Coccidia of Whooping Cranes. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 14: 24-27.
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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 40 years (captivity) Observations: On average, these animals live little over 20 years (http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/). They have been estimated to live up to 22-30 years in the wild. In captivity, they can live up to 35-40 years and one 31 year-old male specimen could still reproduce (http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/).
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Reproduction

Whooping cranes are monogamous and form pairs around two or three years old. A pair bond develops through a variety of courtship behaviors including unison walks, unison calls, and courtship dances. Courtship usually begins with dancing, which starts with bowing, hopping, and wing flapping by one, and then both individuals. Each crane repeatedly leaps into the air on stiff legs, which continues until both individuals leap a few times in sync with each other. During the courtship dance the male may also jump over the female as she bows her head toward her body. Calling in unison is also important in pair maintenance and involves a duet between the female and male. The male has a lower call and positions the head straight up and behind vertical while the female is completely vertical or forward of vertical. Once one of the individuals begins the call the other joins in.

Once paired, whooping cranes breed seasonally and start nesting at approximately four years of age. Prior to copulation either individual begins walking slowly, with their bill pointed up, and neck forward and fully extended. This individual releases a low growl and the other individual walks with the same style behind the first and calling with its bill up toward the sky. Copulation commonly occurs at daybreak, however it can occur during any time in the day. Nesting pairs generally mate for life, but one will find a new mate following the death of the other.

Mating System: monogamous

Whooping cranes reproduce once a year from late April to May. Males and females participate in building a flat, ground nest usually on a mound of vegetation surrounded by water. In periods of drought, nesting sites can become no longer suitable for use. Typically two eggs are laid and the incubation period is 30 to 35 days. The sex ratio is nearly equal between the number of males and females hatched. The abandonment or loss of a nest is rare but breeding pairs can re-nest if either occurs within the first fifteen days of incubation. Fledging occurs between 80 to 100 days but the young remain with their parents until they reach independence at 9 months of age. Parents continue to feed and care for the fledgelings. Sexual maturity is reached between 4 and 5 years old.

Breeding interval: Whooping cranes breed once a year.

Breeding season: Whooping cranes breed from late April to May.

Range eggs per season: 1 to 3.

Range time to hatching: 30 to 35 days.

Average time to hatching: 30 days.

Range fledging age: 80 to 100 days.

Average time to independence: 9 months.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 4 to 5 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 4 to 5 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Average birth mass: 212 g.

Average eggs per season: 2.

Both the male and female share equally in incubation responsibilities. The individual not incubating guards the nest from predators. Once hatched, young chicks are brooded by their parents at night or during bad weather. When a chick displays hunger, referred to as food begging, the parents provide them with food. The female provides the food more often than the male. The adult grasps the food in its bill and the chicks peck at the food. Food choices are initially worms and insects and grow is size as the chick develops. The young gradually start to feed independently. Food begging can be seen in young birds six to nine months old. The majority of juvenile birds completely leave their parents at the end of spring migration the following year.

Parental Investment: precocial ; male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); post-independence association with parents; extended period of juvenile learning

  • Allen, R. 1952. The Whooping Crane: Research Report No. 3 of the National Audubon Society. New York, NY: National Audubon Society.
  • Hughes, J. 2008. Cranes: A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis. Richmond Hill: Firefly Books.
  • Johnsgard, P. 1983. Cranes of the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Kuyt, E. 1980. Clutch size, Hatching Success, and Survival of Whooping Crane Chicks, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Crane Research Around the World, 1980: 126-129.
  • Lewis, J. 1995. Whooping Crane Grus americana. The Birds of North America, 153: 1-28.
  • Spalding, M., M. Folk, S. Nesbitt, M. Folk, R. Kiltie. 2009. Environmental Correlates of Reproductive Success for Introduced Resident whooping Cranes in Florida. Waterbirds, 32(4): 538-547.
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Breeding begins in early May. Pair mates for life. Both sexes, in turn, incubate 2, sometimes 1-3, eggs for 33-34 days. Nestlings are precocial. Young are tended by both adults, fledge when no less than 10 weeks old (no earlier than mid-August), remain with parents until following year (dissociate after arrival on breeding grounds). Sexually mature at 4-6 years.

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Grus americana

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 5 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

AATCGATGATTATTTTCAACTAACCACAAAGATATCGGAACCCTTTACCTAATCTTCGGCGCATGAGCCGGTATAATTGGCACTGCTCTT---AGCCTGTTAATCCGCGCAGAACTTGGCCAACCAGGAAGCCTCTTAGGAGAT---GACCAAATCTACAATGTAATTGTCACCGCCCACGCCTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTCATACCCATCATGATTGGAGGATTCGGAAACTGATTAGTCCCACTTATA---ATCGGTGCCCCCGACATAGCATTCCCACGCATAAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTACTCCCTCCATCCTTCCTACTACTACTTGCCTCCTCCACAGTAGAGGCAGGAGCAGGTACAGGATGAACAGTCTACCCACCACTAGCTGGCAACCTAGCCCACGCCGGAGCTTCAGTAGACCTA---GCCATCTTCTCTCTTCACCTAGCAGGTGTATCCTCCATCCTAGGGGCAATCAATTTCATCACAACAGCCATCAACATAAAACCACCAGCCCTATCACAATACCAAACACCCTTATTCGTGTGATCCGTCCTAATTACCGCCGTCCTATTACTCCTCTCTCTCCCAGTCCTTGCTGCT---GGCATCACCATACTACTAACAGACCGAAACCTCAATACTACATTCTTCGACCCTGCTGGAGGAGGAGACCCTGTCCTATATCAACATCTCTTCTGATTCTTTGGCCACCCAGAAGTTTACATCCTAATCCTCCCAGGTTTCGGAATCATCTCACACGTAGTAACCTACTACGCAGGTAAAAAA---GAACCATTTGGTTATATAGGAATAGTATGAGCCATACTATCTATTGGATTCCTAGGCTTCATCGTATGAGCCCACCATATATTCACAGTAGGAATAGACGTAGATACTCGAGCATACTTCACATCCGCCACCATAATCATTGCTATCCCAACTGGCATTAAAGTCTTTAGCTGATTA---GCTACACTACACGGAG
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Grus americana

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 5
Specimens with Barcodes: 6
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
EN
Endangered

Red List Criteria
D

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s
Archibald, G., Cannon, J., Hook, J., Johns, B., Reid, M., Stehn, H. & Stehn, T.

Justification
This species is listed as Endangered because it has an extremely small population. However, the conservation status of the species is improving, with not only increases in the natural wild population but also establishment of two reintroduced flocks that may become self-sustaining. If the number of mature individuals continues to increase, this species may merit downlisting to Vulnerable.


History
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Threatened (T)