Whooping Cranes

A beautiful rare Whooping crane with leg bands visible flying to another field to feed.

January 28, 2021 – Nearing the end of January on a cold and cloudy morning a ghostly white figure stood out among a large number of wintering Sandhill cranes. The cranes were socializing and feeding in some corn stubble a few miles south of the Kankakee river. Large and small flocks of Sandhill cranes were flying across the sky in all directions and many hundreds were crowded together in the surrounding fields. At times a Sandhill crane would seem to challenge the larger white crane that appeared to be minding its’ own business only to be pushed back by the larger bird and disappear into the crowd of gray. Soon another white figure began to come in view as it slowly emerged from the deep drainage ditch that cut through the agricultural fields. A large beautiful white crane was feeding with the Sandhill cranes that were foraging along the weedy banks and in the shallow icy waters of the ditch. I always have somewhat of a mixed feeling of joy and sadness to see those glorious but rare and endangered Whooping cranes. Understanding their struggles and knowing how few there really are can certainly occupy the emotional part of your brain after the experience. Larger than the Sandhill crane, the Whooping crane is the tallest bird in North American and also one of the rarest. Currently the International Crane Foundation puts the numbers of Whooping cranes in the world at 826, the Eastern migratory population nest in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, and are the Whooping cranes that we see here in the Midwest and are estimated at 80 birds as of January 2021. Out of that estimated number in the Eastern population, 17 were wild-hatched, and the rest are captive-reared. There are 504 in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo migratory population that migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast in Texas. Louisiana has a non-migratory population of 69 and Florida has 9. There are 159 Whooping cranes in captivity

The bright-white Whooping crane stands out among the gray Sandhill cranes crowded together in the corn stubble.

Wintering Cranes

Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes flying with legs and feet pulled up under their bodies, temperatures at the time were in the single digits.

January 24, 2019 – It is late January and temperatures have dipped into the single digits with wind chills sinking into the negative double digits, so why are there so many Sandhill cranes along with a small number of Whooping cranes still in Northwestern Indiana? Hundreds of Sandhill cranes are using an area a few miles Northwest of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, just south of the Kankakee river in the vicinity of a large power generating plant. According to Elisabeth Condon who is the Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator for The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin, if the conditions are right for the cranes, both the Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes, they may stay in a place like Northwestern Indiana where they can roost at night near the power station and feed in the corn fields and wet areas during the day. Condon also stated that there was a Whooping crane that wintered in Horican Wisconsin last year and survived the sub-zero temperatures.

A few miles southwest of the cranes roosting area I photographed two Whooping cranes flying with a small number of Sandhill cranes, all of those birds had their legs folded up under their bodies looking more like geese. This was an unusual sight for me, I have only observed the Sandhill cranes in less extreme winter condition where they always have their legs fully extended trailing behind. When questioned about the cranes pulling their legs and feet up under their bodies while flying, Condon explained this has been observed under the extremely cold conditions of winter, the cranes are just trying to keep their feet and legs warm, but also noted their legs extended in flight are used for control and balance.

A single adult Whooping crane surrounded by hundreds of Sandhill cranes feeding in the corn stubble of an agricultural field.

A scientific paper published in 2015, “Changes in the number and distribution of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the Eastern Population”, used data from the Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys from 1966 – 2013. The paper explains not only the increase in the number of the eastern population of Sandhill cranes but also changes in cranes nesting, migration and wintering patterns. It seems that historic southbound migration staging areas for the cranes have become, when conditions are right, wintering grounds. The authors claim “Factors such as annual weather, long-term climate change, and changes in land use may influence future population trends and changes in both breeding and wintering ranges and are not mutually exclusive factors.” (Lacy et al. 324).

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Crane

Female #14-15

December 10, 2017 – North America’s tallest bird at nearly 5 feet, the adult Whooping Crane is quite elegant and is as white as snow, except for the shades of red on its’ head and the black wingtips that can be seen in flight or when those nearly eight foot wings are stretched out. The Whooping Crane was at the edge of its’ existence as it was becoming locally extinct and rapidly moving towards a total extinction by man. Loss of habitat from industrialization and the expanding agricultural needs causing extensive wetlands to be drained, the Whooping Crane’s winter range and summer nesting areas were being destroyed. Shooting and collecting the eggs of these grand birds with no regard to the impact on the species, the nature of the shortsighted was taking its toll. In 1941 there were only around 20 Whooping Cranes known to remain, extinction seemed emanate. The story of this challenge continues today even though the alarm bells rang years ago. Projects and experiments for saving this species continue through hard work and dedication from biologists, conservationists and volunteers with the long term hopes of restoring the crane to the self-sustaining species it once was.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane Fly Over

The population of these birds is only around 600 across the country. Living in the Midwest, we get to sometimes witness the Eastern flock, a small monitored percentage of the total population of these birds that is part of the Operation Migration project out of Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to see a rare Whooping Crane you might notice the color coded radio transmitters on the birds upper legs, taking note of the color codes is an important way of identifying the cranes and their location back to Operation Migration for their records. These photos of the cranes were taken this past week here in the Midwest in Northern Indiana. The crane in the photograph that is standing clearly shows the color codes, Right leg r/w Left leg w/g. In the photograph of the flying crane you can see one of the antenna for the radio and also the coal black color of the feathers at the ends of the outspread wings. Who is the celebrity crane in the photographs? It is an adult female crane #14-15 that first left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 3, 2015. She has been returning to Wisconsin in the spring and wintering in Alabama and the photo shows her on December 10th of this year at a staging area here in the Midwest before she continues south. Not far from where I photographed #14-15 I also was able to photograph two adults, a male #63-15 and a female #71-16 with, according to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, a young parent-reared #24-17 male that was raised in captivity by adult birds before being transferred to Wisconsin and released in in late September.

Whooping Cranes

Male 63-15, Female 71-16 and a young parent-reared #24-17