About Whooping Cranes
The Whooping Crane is the tallest North American bird and was at one time on the razor’s edge of extinction. By the early 1940's, only 15-20 Whooping Cranes remained in the wild. Many factors contributed to the decline of the Whooping Crane, but the principal cause was unregulated hunting and poaching. This larger cousin of the Sandhill Crane was probably never abundant, but once nested as close to Nebraska as northern Iowa and South Dakota. Whooping Crane numbers have slowly climbed to nearly 300 wild individuals in the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock. The flock name reflects where it breeds (Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta) and winters (Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas). The Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock is the only wild, self-sustaining population. Recovery efforts have attempted to establish an additional population, but a self-sustaining population is yet to be produced. Reaching the level of approximately 300 wild whooping cranes has taken time and required collaboration across multiple states. Recovery efforts are ongoing. (http://www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/).
Whooping Cranes migrate through Nebraska every spring and fall. Peak migration during the respective season occurs in April and October. Important landscapes and habitats include the central Platte River, Rainwater Basin, the Loup River system, Central Table Playas and the Niobrara River.
Want to know more about Nebraska’s wetlands?
Whooping Cranes do not stage during migration as Sandhill Cranes do each spring in the central Platte River valley. Rather, Whooping Crane’s “stopover”. Stopovers may only be for one night, but they can also last for up to three weeks.
Long-term, Whooping Crane recovery will be challenged by outright habitat loss but also a reduction in existing habitat quality, particularly in wintering areas and migratory stopover sites. Winter habitat is at risk from water development that reduce freshwater inflows to estuarine habitats and climate change. Migratory habitat is at risk from wetland drainage and energy development. Because the numbers remain very low and because there is only a single self-sustaining population, the species is vulnerable to events such as hurricanes or disease outbreaks.
The Whooping Crane is perhaps the most famous of the endangered species. To see one in the wild is a privilege and an experience never to be forgotten. It reminds us that we have a responsibility to see that this species graces the prairie skies far beyond our own lifetime.