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Whooping Cranes Arrive in South Carolina After a 150-Year Absence


November 18, 2004

Jennifer Koches
(USFWS), 843/727-4707 ext. 19
Rachel F. Levin
(USFWS), 612/713-5311
Chuck Underwood
(USFWS), 904/232-2580 ext. 109


Three years after proposing to reintroduce whooping cranes (Grus americana) into historic habitat and establish a migratory flock of birds in eastern North America, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service confirms the arrival of 5 whooping cranes in South Carolina.

There are now 35 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America, thanks to the efforts of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups organizing the effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of the bird's historic range. Of those 35 birds, 5 birds from the Class of 2003 arrived in South Carolina last week, marking the end of a 150-year long absence from the state.

A lone bird was reported in McCormick County, South Carolina on November 9, 2004. Over the next couple of days, 4 additional Class of 2003 birds appeared near Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston, South Carolina. Three of the four birds that arrived at Cape Romain have gradually made their way up the South Carolina coast and into coastal North Carolina.

The remains of one of the birds, #5-03, were discovered on November 16 near the refuge. An investigation into the death of #5-03 is being conducted and evidence at this point suggests mortality was the result of natural causes. The lone bird that first appeared in McCormick County has made its way into the marshes of Colleton County, South Carolina where it has remained.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach the birds on foot within 600 feet; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view whooping cranes.

Listed as an endangered species in 1967, the whooping crane was last documented in South Carolina in 1850. A species brought to the edge of extinction by hunting and specimen collection, human disturbance, and loss of primary nesting habitat, whooping crane numbersdipped to an all time low of 16 individuals in 1941.

Whooping cranes once occurred from the Arctic Sea to the high plateau of central Mexico, and from Utah east to New Jersey, South Carolina, and Florida. Standing almost 5 feet tall, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. Adult birds are characterized by snowy white plumage, a crimson crown, long thin black legs, and white wings tipped with black that measure almost 6 feet in length. The plumage of juvenile birds is a mixture of cinnamon and white. Deriving their name from the distinctive whooping call, the call of the whooping crane can carry for miles.

A wild flock of whooping cranes migrates between nesting territories in Canada and wintering grounds in Texas and is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world. To date, there are 452 whooping cranes left; 318 in wild flocks and 134 in captivity. Recognizing the fact that this last remaining wild population has become concentrated to such small areas, scientists became concerned that a single catastrophic event on either the wintering or nesting grounds could wipe out the population. This concern led to the efforts to establish additional, separated populations.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team, a team of biologists that provide policy and recommendations for the species,searched for possible locations to establish a second migratory flock. In 1999, the team recommended that a flock of whooping cranes hatched in captivity be taught a migration route between central Wisconsin and the west coast of Florida. The recovery team then sanctioned the ultralight-led migration techniques of Operation Migration, Inc. as the main reintroduction method.

In 2001, Operation Migration's pilots led the first whooping crane chicks south from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultralight aircraft and raised in isolation from humans. To ensure impressionable cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a strict no-talking rule, broadcast recorded crane calls, and wear costumes designed to mask the human form whenever they are around the cranes. In 2002 and 2003, WCEPbiologists and pilots conditioned additional groups of juvenile cranesand guided them along in migration.

Founding members of WCEPinclude the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team. Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding, and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project's estimated $1.8 million budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors. For more information on the project and its partners, visit the WCEP website at

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 544 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.


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