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Whooping Cranes

Grus americana

How the Whooping Cranes Get Here

Whooping crane eggs are collected from captive and wild nesting cranes, and taken to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. There the eggs are incubated, and turned three times a day until they hatch. Throughout their incubation, audio tapes of ultralight engine noises and brooding adult crane sounds are played intermittently. Thus the birds become desensitized to the engine noise, and learn to recognize brood calls.early training 

Crane handlers, always silent and in a white costume when working with these birds, use a puppet to greet the chicks when they hatch. The puppet looks like the head and neck of an adult whooping crane. Handlers teach the chicks how to feed and drink with the help of the puppet. Young whooping cranes learn to look for the adult bird and do not perceive humans as their source for food and water, which helps keep the birds "wild".early training 

While at Patuxent, the young cranes receive their first ultralight training in a circle pen from a costumed handler holding a puppet. When the chicks are old enough and strong enough, they are moved to Wisconsin where their training continues. Again, whooping crane brood calls are played to encourage the chicks to follow the ultralight. Over time the birds become strong enough to follow the ultralight into the air in preparation for migration. The training period lasts about 6 months.

Ultralight trainingThe migration path from Wisconsin to the Refuge is about 1,113 miles. Weather sometimes limits the ultralights' flying opportunities and the trip can take about three months. When the whooping cranes arrive at St. Marks NWR, their winter home, they are placed in a very large pen. Initially they are kept in a small covered part of the pen for check-up by veterinarians and acclimation. After a few days, they are released to fly and forage outside the pen, but crane handlers feed the cranes and teach them to return at night to the safety of the pen. Handlers maintain careful watch, but gradually decrease their support of the juvenile cranes.

Crane_Pen_150By mid to late March the now-independent cranes start feeling the call to return to their summer feeding and breeding grounds in Wisconsin. They will fly efficiently on their own, taking only a week or two, and then will continue to migrate between the northern and southern parts of the country in the Eastern Flyway for the rest of their lives.

What to do if you see a Whooping Crane in the wild:

  • Stay at least 600 feet away from the birds whether on foot or in a vehicle.
  • If in a vehicle, stay in it, and if on a public road, stay at least 300 feet away.
  • Remain concealed; don't let the birds see you.
  • Speak very quietly so the birds will not hear you.

For further information:
Operation Migration website:
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website: 

Facts About Whooping Cranes

Tallest North Americam bird: 5 1/2 ft

Wing span: 7 1/2 feet
Weight: 13 to 17 pounds
Breeding at about 5 years old
Life span: 22 to 25 years
Habitat: shallow ponds, marshes
Food: cranes are omnivores (crabs, fish, frogs, berries, aquatic plants)
Conservation status: endangered
All time low number: 15 in 1941
Approximate number today: 500 total (350 in the wild)

Page Photo Credits — ©Gayla Kittendorf, ©Operation Migration
Last Updated: Nov 30, 2013
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