: The adult whooping crane is white overall with red facial skin. In flight, black primaries are apparent. Immature birds are white with pale red-brown head and neck and scattered red-brown feathers over the rest of the body.
Adult whooping cranes are 50 to 56 inches long and have a wingspan of 87 to 90 inches. Males weigh 16 pounds, females weigh 14 pounds. They can have a wing span up to 7.5 feet.
The bird is distinguished by its outstretched neck in flight. It has a shrill trumpeting ker-lee-loo call. Common names are a whooper, big white crane, flying sheep, stork and white crane.
Range: Whooping cranes are endangered both state and federally. Historically, the birds nested over a wide area from Lake Michigan northward to the Arctic coast and wintered along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. But populations have decreased dramatically since the 1900s. Whooping cranes have not been seen in Colorado since 2002.
Habitat: They live in mudflats around reservoirs and in agricultural areas. While wintering, they live on salt flats that are dominated by coastal salt grass. Their nesting grounds are wetland communities dominated by bulrush.
Diet: Whooping cranes are omnivorous feeders. The most common foods are crabs, clams, shrimp, snails, frogs, snakes, grasshoppers, larval and nymph forms of flies, beetles, water bugs, birds and small mammals. They eat more than 58 species of fish.
Reproduction: Whooping cranes breed during the summer. The birds arrive on breeding grounds in late April. Whooping cranes are monogamous and form life-long pair bonds. The female lays two eggs, two days apart, during late-April or early-May. The incubation period is 29 to 34 days. Currently, breeding birds number about 100 and there are 260 individuals - 150 in the wild and 110 in captivity. Whooping cranes begin to acquire adult plumage after the first summer. They fledge for 78 to 90 days. The young are abandoned by their parents the following spring and are sexually mature at four to six years of age. In the wild, whooping cranes typically have a lifespan of 22 to 24 years. In captivity the lifespan is increased to 27 to 40 years.
Endangered Status: The whooping crane has managed to fight off the threat of extinction for the last half century. Whooping cranes historically nested over a wide area from Lake Michigan northward to the Arctic coast and wintered along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Populations decreased dramatically throughout the 1880s and into the early 1900s, mainly because of the loss of nesting and wintering habitat. Some were also killed for their feathers. By the early 1940s, reports indicated that the population had dropped to less than 20 birds, and extinction appeared imminent. But a stringent management program may have saved the species. The program called for protection of the birds’ nesting area at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and their wintering area at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Two other management programs have also been attempted. One called for raising some birds in captivity, and another was aimed at establishing a wild population in Idaho.
For more information, see the Natural Diversity Information Source species profile.