Important Information for Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Hunters

The purpose of this web site is to provide waterfowl and Sandhill Crane hunters with information that will reduce the likelihood of shooting illegally  at migratory birds that may look like Sandhill Cranes, but for which there is no open season and are protected by Federal law. Some of these protected migratory bird species are common, while others are rare. One of these protected migratory bird species is  very rare, the Whooping Crane, and has been listed as endangered. Special Note: All images on this page can be enlarged by clicking once on the image.

Field of Sandhill Cranes - credit Rod Drewien
Field of Sandhill Cranes. Credit: Rod Drewien
Whooping crane juvenile - credit USGS
Whooping crane juvenile

Whooping Crane - credit USFWS
Whooping Crane Credit: USFWS


Pair of Whooping Cranes - credit USFWS
Pair of Whooping Cranes. Credit: USFWS

Whooping Cranes, or whoopers, stand over five feet tall and are the tallest bird in North America. These cranes have a wingspan of over seven feet and often associate with Sandhill Cranes during the fall hunting period, but are white in appearance and have black legs and black wing tips. They have a red facial mask and long olive-drab bills.

Whooping Cranes encountered by hunters in the Central Flyway are part of the last remaining self-sustaining wild population of about 200 individual birds known as the Aransas/Wood Buffalo Park Population (AWBP). They breed at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, migrate through the Central Flyway (North Dakota, South Dakota, eastern Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma), and winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The fall migration begins in mid-September and they normally reach their wintering grounds by early December. These cranes usually migrate as a single pair, family group, or in small flocks. When Whooping Cranes travel as singles they often join groups of Sandhill Cranes. It is extremely important not to shoot at any white-colored cranes since they may be Whooping Cranes. They migrate during the daylight hours and make regular stops to feed and rest. This map of confirmed Whooping Crane sightings of the AWBP indicates that whoopers can potentially be encountered in many different locations throughout the Central Flyway during the fall migration.

Whooping Crane Migration Map through Fall 2016, Photo Credit:  Matt Rabbe, USFWS

For more information on Whooping Cranes visit the following web sites:
  ECOS Environmental Conservation Online System Species Profile for Whooping crane (Grus americana)
  Be Sure Before You Shoot - Distinguishing Geese and Sandhill Cranes from Whooping Cranes (TX Parks and Wildlife video)
  International Crane Foundation
  Patuxent Wildlife Research Center: Whooping Cranes
  NCTC Conservation Library: Whooping Crane (a fact sheet from 1995)

Eastern Migratory Whooping Crane Population Map - credit  USFWS
Eastern Migratory Whooping Crane Population Map - Credit USFWS

A non-essential experimental population, the Eastern Migratory Whooping Crane Population (EMWCP), occurs in a 20-state area in the eastern U.S. This project to reintroduce whooping cranes to the eastern U.S. began during 2001. Each year young whooping cranes are hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and then transported to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, where they are trained to follow ultra light aircraft.

Whoopers following ultra light aircraft -  credit Whooping Crane Eastern PartnershipWhoopers following ultra light aircraft. Credit: Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership

The ultra light aircraft are only used in the initial migration to Florida to show them the way to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. In their subsequent spring and fall migrations the Whooping Cranes migrate unassisted.

Another attempt to establish a non-migratory population recently has occurred in Louisiana, in an area where they historically nested until the 1930s. Whooping cCranes were reintroduced in February 2011 (76 FR 6066-6082) and also were designated as non-essential experimental.

For more information on this important projects, visit the following related links:
  Reintroduction of Migratory Population in Eastern United States
 Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership
 Whooping Cranes: the Road to Survival

Please report all sightings of Whooping Cranes to your State Fish and Game Agency (local game warden or biologist), to a local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office, to Martha Tacha, USFWS in Grand Island, Nebraska (telephone 308-382-6468, Ext. 19; or on the  Whooping Crane Observations in the Eastern U.S. Form. Please note date, location, number of birds, behavior (walking, flying), habitat, and physical description. An international network has been set up to keep all reports in a centralized database which is used to monitor the migration. If possible, get a professional biologist or ornithologist to view the cranes to confirm the sighting. Sightings of marked cranes (whooping or sandhills) may be reported at

White Pelicans - credit George Gentry, USFWS
White Pelicans Credit George Gentry, USFWS

Many species of birds are commonly encountered while hunting Sandhill Cranes near wetlands and associated upland feeding and resting areas. Some species of birds that associate with Sandhill Cranes (e.g., waterfowl) can be hunted legally in some areas. However, hunters should consult state regulations for additional information on season dates, areas, and other regulations governing take of these species.

Federally protected migratory birds which may not be taken, possessed, transported, sold or bartered include all migratory birds as defined and protected under federal law. These species include, but are not limited to, Trumpeter Swans (Central Flyway only), Whooping Cranes, cormorants, bitterns, grebes, herons, kingfishers, loons, pelicans, gulls, shore birds, eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls. It is the responsibility of all hunters to be able to identify species legal to hunt and not attempt to shoot any protected species. It’s the law!

There are over 1000 species of migratory birds in North America. Only 58 of these have been designated as game species for which hunting seasons can be established. The rest have no sport hunting seasons and are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is unlawful to take or attempt to take any of these species during any time of year.

Waterfowl Comparative Sizes Credit: Central Flyway Waterfowl CouncilWaterfowl Comparative Sizes Credit: Central Flyway Waterfowl Council
Waterfowl Comparative Sizes Credit: Central Flyway Waterfowl Council

Some of these protected species have been designated as threatened or endangered (e.g., Whooping Crane) and are further protected by the Endangered Species Act. Sandhill Crane hunters in the Central Flyway need to be particularly cautious about the presence of Whooping Cranes during Sandhill Crane hunting seasons. The penalty for the unlawful take of an endangered species is a fine of up to $100,000 and/or up to 1 year in jail. If you see anyone shoot a Whooping Crane, you may be eligible for a reward up to $2,500 for information leading to the arrest of that person.

Whooping Cranes and Birds Which Appear Similar - credit, USFWS
Whooping Cranes and Birds Which Appear Similar. Credit: USFWS

Sandhill Crane - credit Rod Drewien
Sandhill Crane Credit Rod Drewien

There are many good bird identification books, pamphlets, videos, and etc. available to Sandhill Crane hunters. Field guides tend to be useful for many hunters due to their compact size. Several field identification references for waterfowl hunters are readily available by contacting your local State or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office. For more information on bird identification resources, visit the following related links:
 Whooping Crane Identification Factsheet
 Whooping Crane Identification for Migratory Bird Hunters

North American Sandhill Cranes are classified into five subspecies and 9 populations. Two of the subspecies of Sandhill Cranes are migratory (greaters and lessers), while three have very limited ranges and are non-migratory (Mississippi, Florida, and the Cuban). In 1918, when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted, Sandhill Crane populations were low and all cranes were protected from hunting in the U.S. and Canada. Several populations of Sandhill Cranes responded favorably to this protection and increased availability of agricultural residues for food on migration and wintering areas.

The Mid-Continent and Rocky Mountain Populations of Sandhill Cranes are two of the populations that increased to healthy levels and experimental hunting seasons resumed in 1961. Today, Sandhill Crane hunting in the Central and Pacific Flyways, Canada, and Mexico is enjoyed by thousands of North Americans. Annual Sandhill Crane harvest and population status reports.

Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Cranes Map - credit Jim Dubovsky, USFWS
Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Cranes Map Credit: Jim Dubovsky, USFWS

The Mid-Continent population of Sandhill Cranes migrates through the Central Flyway from their breeding grounds inSiberia, Alaska, and Canada to their wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and Mexico. The population is estimated to be over ½ million birds, the largest crane population in the world. The Rocky Mountain of population of Greater Sandhill Cranes migrates through the eastern portion of the Pacific Flyway and western portion of the Central Flyway. The population is estimated to be about 20,000 birds.

The Harvest Information Program (HIP) survey provides critical scientific harvest information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and State Wildlife Agencies responsible for the management of these birds. It is very important for all sandhill crane hunters to cooperate in this harvest survey, in doing so hunters help the management of this important migratory bird species. Each year, the USFWS sends a survey to a sample of sandhill crane hunters from every state where sandhill crane hunting is permitted. Information on participation and hunting success is used to establish management guidelines, season dates and bag limits. The information from the annual harvest survey is crucial for the management of sandhill crane populations and maintaining hunting opportunity. It is especially important for sandhill crane hunters to participate in this survey since the accuracy of the data is questioned when hunters fail to respond. The USFWS is trying to increase the response rate on HIP surveys, even those individuals who did not hunt cranes need to participate in the survey if they receive a questionnaire.

For more information on HIP please visit this website:
Harvest Information Program

Visit these web sites for more information on sandhill cranes:
 Outdoor Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes 
 International Crane Foundation: Sandhill Crane
 Whooping Crane Conservation Association
  Texas Sandhill Crane Seasons and Regulations

Last Updated: August 22, 2018