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Whooping Cranes

Grus americana

In the freshwater and brackish marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a distinct and wild trumpeting call rings across the marsh. It is the whooping crane, Grus americana, the rarest crane species and one of the rarest birds in North America. All of the whooping cranes alive today, both wild and captive, are descendants of the last 15 remaining cranes that were found wintering at the Aransas Refuge in 1941.

The only natural wild flock of whooping cranes nests in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Whoopers mate for life but have been known to re-mate following the death of their mate. They may survive up to 25 years in the wild and 35 to 40 years in captivity. Adults generally begin to produce eggs when they reach four or five years of age and then will lay two eggs, usually rearing only one chick. In late spring and summer, their nests are built on small islands of bulrushes, cattails, and sedges. Dry years can result in heavy predation with few young surviving. In the fall, the migration begins. The whooping cranes will fly 2,500 miles from Wood Buffalo National Park to their wintering grounds on the Texas coast at Aransas Refuge.

They travel as a single pair, family group, or in small flocks and sometimes accompany sandhill cranes. They migrate during daylight hours and make regular stops along the way. By December, all or nearly all have reached the marshes in and around Aransas where they feed on blue crabs, wolfberries, crayfish, frogs, large insects and acorns roasted during the prescribed burns. As spring arrives and the days get warmer and longer, the cranes prepare for the trip back to Wood Buffalo by increasing their food intake to fatten up for the long return flight.

They are the tallest bird in North America, standing nearly five feet tall, with a seven foot wingspan. Their snow-white body feathers are accented by jet-black wing tips (visible only when the wings are extended), and a crescent of black feathers with a patch of red skin on the head. Their bills are dark olive-gray and become lighter during the breeding season. In the fall, juveniles have a rusty brown plumage with some white adult feathers just beginning to appear. By the time they leave Aransas in the spring the juveniles are white.

Whooping cranes have a loud vocalization and elaborate courtship ritual which helps strengthen the bond between the pair. The courtship consists of calling, wing flapping, head bowing and astonishing leaps into the air by both birds. These dances typically begin in late winter as prelude to mating but the birds do this at other times, as well, like when they are defending their territories or playing.

 

For more information about the birds wintering at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, please visit our Whooping Crane Updates page.

Facts About Whooping Cranes

Status: Endangered since 1967 due to habitat loss and over-hunting
Life Span: Up to 25 years in the wild
Height: Five feet
Weight: Between 14-16 pounds
Clutch Size: 1-3 eggs
Behavior: Will mate for life

Page Photo Credits — Whooping cranes / Steve Sykes ©
Last Updated: Feb 20, 2013
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