North Dakota Field Office
Mountain-Prairie Region
Whooping Crane
(Grus americana)


whooping crane by US Fish & Wildlife Service
Photo by US Fish & Wildlife Service

Official Status:  Endangered.  Endangered species are animals and plants in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range.  It is unlawful to kill, harm, or harass endangered species.

Listed:   35 Federal Register 8495; June 2, 1970.

Historical Status:   The historical breeding range of the whooping crane extended from Illinois, northwest through North Dakota, and up to the Northwest Territories.  The last nesting record for North Dakota was in McHenry County in 1915.  The birds historically wintered along the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1940's, there were an estimated 21 whooping cranes left in the world.  Most were from a flock that wintered at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Texas.  It was later discovered that the birds were breeding in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories.

Present Status:  About 264 whooping cranes presently occur in the wild.  Almost all of these birds are in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock.  In 1986, a flock that migrates between Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico peaked at 35 in 1998; however, only two birds remain in this population.  The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population migrates through North Dakota.  During the 1999 fall migration, 15 sightings occurred in North Dakota from late August to mid October.  The spring migration occurs from late April to mid June.  Birds can show up in all parts of North Dakota, although most sightings occur in the western two-thirds of the State.

Habitat:   Whooping cranes inhabit shallow wetlands that are characterized by cattails, bulrushes, and sedges.  They can also be found in upland areas, especially during migration.

Life History:   Whooping cranes do not appear to reach sexual maturity until their 2nd or 3rd year.  Courtship occurs at Wood Buffalo National Park in late April and May.  Courtship rituals are eccentric with the pair performing loud vocalizations, wing flapping, head bowing, and leaps into the air.  Whooping cranes mate for life.  Two eggs are laid in a nest made of bulrush and other vegetation.  Incubation is about 29 days.  Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young.  Usually only the larger chick survives due to its more aggressive behavior.  Young cranes are capable of flight in about 90 days.  Whooping cranes may live 20 years.  Whooping cranes feed on crabs, crayfish, frogs, and other small aquatic life, as well as plants.

Aid to Identification:   The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America.  It is a white bird with black wingtips and red markings on the head. Young birds have a brown-mottled appearance until their second summer.  Whooping cranes are 5 feet tall and have wingspans of 7 feet.  Whooping cranes fly with a slow downward flap and a rapid upstroke. Whooping cranes may migrate with the smaller, gray, sandhill crane.  The trumpet-like call carries for miles.

Reasons for Decline:   Loss of habitat and shooting are the main reasons for the whooping crane's decline.

Recommendations:   Many of the wild whooping cranes are marked with colored leg bands.  Make observations of these birds and report them to a wildlife agency.

Comments:   The status of whooping cranes in the wild is precarious because the birds concentrate during the winter. Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico are a potential threat.  Eggs from wild birds (1 per nest) have been removed and hatched in captivity.  The captive birds are now reproducing.

References:   Whooping Crane Recovery Plan by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1994.

Whooping crane by US Geological Survey
Photo by US Geological Survey

Last updated: February 19, 2013