USGS

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

whiteshadow

Crane Facts and Frequently Asked Questions

Crane Facts

FAQs

Why are they called whooping cranes? The Whooper gets its name from its call. Cranes make a variety of sounds, but most cranes have a special one that it performs with its mate, called a unison call. <click for unison call> The Whoopers' call is louder than many other crane species and can be heard over great distances. The reason the Whoopers are so loud is because of their trachea. We have tracheas, too; it's the tube in our throat that we breathe through. Cranes have a very long trachea, which coil inside their breast bone. The Whooper's trachea coils around twice, like a French horn, and that gives the bird its loud resonance.

How can you tell the difference between the male and female? Sometimes you can't. Whooper males and females are colored exactly alike--white with black wing-tips--unlike many birds such as robins or bluejays that have different shadings of color that make it obvious which is male or female. Male whoopers are often larger than females, which can help us identify them, but this is not reliable since there can be smaller males or larger females. Biologists can often tell the sexes apart by their behavior, especially when they call since males and females have a slightly different way of calling. But even this isn't completely reliable. In captivity, to be sure of the sex of a whooper, we take a small blood sample and send it out for analysis. This blood sample can be used as a positive way to identify the sexes. We need to know the sexes of the young birds we are sending out for release, so that we don't send too many males or too many females and skew the ratio in nature. And we need to know the sexes of the young birds we are keeping so we can pair them together properly when they get older.

Do whooping cranes mate for life? Generally speaking, yes. Whoopers usually court a mate for a certain period of time before "settling down." During this courting period, the pair may split up and choose other mates. Once whoopers are old enough to nest and lay eggs, the permanence of the pair may depend on whether or not they successfully raise chicks. A young pair that doesn't have "nest success," that is, that doesn't successfully raise a chick, may separate and find other mates. Producing young is the most important goal. Once whoopers settle with a mate and rear chicks, the pair will usually be permanent unless one of them dies. An experienced pair will often stay together even if their nest fails one year.

What are the responsibilities of each whooper parent? Both parents take turns incubating the egg. They do this by using their bodies to keep the egg warm and turning the eggs so the chick develops properly.  Both parents feed and look after the chick. However, parenting skills in whoopers are learned. Whooping cranes become more experienced at raising chicks over time.

Where are whoopers from? Historically, the Whooper's breeding range stretched from Alberta, Canada to the southern end of Lake Michigan. The wintering grounds included parts of northern Mexico, the Texas Gulf coast, and parts of the Atlantic coast. There were groups of non-migratory whoopers that lived in Louisiana, and possibly some other areas in the southeastern United States. There was a sharp decline of the population of whoopers starting in the 1800s due to man-made changes of habitat, hunting, and feather and egg collecting. By the 1940's, fewer than 20 birds survived in a single remaining flock. Thanks to conservation efforts and international cooperation between Canada and the United States, this wild flock of whoopers currently has about 188 birds. The flock migrates between a northern area of Canada, Wood Buffalo National Park, and a southern area of the United States, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas on the Gulf coast. The Whoopers spend their winter in warm Texas, but return to Wood Buffalo every spring to nest. It's a journey of almost 2700 miles.

What kind of habitat do whoopers need? Whoopers use a variety of wetland habitats. They breed in a remote area of mixed forest and wetlands. They use croplands, marshes, and submerged sandbars during migration. In the winter, they use bays and coastal marshes. The loss of wetlands, which are often drained for development and agricultural use, has a direct impact on the whooping crane along their migratory route. Without these areas to stop, rest, and feed, the migration becomes much more difficult. Wetlands are especially critical since they roost overnight in water as a predator aversion strategy.

To learn more about cranes and their biology and behavior, please read, "Cranes: Their Biology, Husbandry, and Conservation” edited by David H. Ellis, George F. Gee (both formerly of USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center) and Claire M. Mirande.

How many cranes are at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center? Right now there are over 70 whooping cranes, 60 Florida Sandhill Cranes, and 48 greater Sandhill Cranes.

What is the total population of whoopers, including wild and captive birds? As of 2012;

Location

Male

Female

Total

Breeding Pairs

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

37

37

77

25

International Crane Foundation

16

18

34

15

Devonian Wild Conservation

9

9

18

7

San Antonio Zoo

4

3

7

2

Audubon Center for Research on Endangered Species

5

4

9

2

Calgary Zoo

1

1

2

0

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

1

1

2

0

Lowry Park Zoo

1

1

2

0

Jacksonville Zoo

1

1

2

0

Milwaukee County Zoo

1

1

2

0

National Zoological Park

1

1

2

0

New Orleans Zoo

1

1

2

0

Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park

1

0

1

0

Subtotal in Captivity

79

78

160

51

Total Population in the Wild and Captivity

 

 

>600

 

 

Juvenile pair
A pair of young Whooping Cranes at Patuxent.



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