They are an ancient species, one that has teetered on the brink of destruction many long years, both awkward and graceful, beautiful and wild. The whooping crane is only one of two cranes native to North America, but in spite of their roots, a little over 300 of the majestic birds remain on the planet.
Whooping Cranes are the tallest bird in North America. Because of their size, there is little question what they are when spotted.
Whooping Cranes are many things. They are the tallest North American bird, with adults standing about 5 feet tall, only one of two species of cranes native to North America.
With snowy white plumage, a crimson cap, bugling call, and graceful courtship dance, they are a joy to watch in the wild,if you are incredibly lucky. Because of their few numbers, your chance of spotting one is extremely unlikely.
Whooping Cranes breed in shallow, grassy wetlands interspersed with grasslands or scattered evergreens. In summer, this population breeds in remote Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. During migration, you may find Whooping Cranes at classic stopover sites such as Nebraska’s Platte River. but the best place to view them in the wild is at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge just north of Rockport/Fulton.
In more recent times, since captive breeding, wetland management, and an innovative program that teaches young cranes how to migrate, numbers have risen sharply. Some estimates run as high as 600 birds, but actual census counts have numbered the species at around 340.
That number may be a little low however, as in recent years Whooping Cranes have been spotted sunning on the beach at Port Aransas, and a few have started migrating to areas in Louisiana and a smaller group in Florida. That represents great progress for the endangered species since in the 1940's there numbers had dwindled to slightly more than 40 birds.
Adults are bright white birds with accents of red on the head. The legs, bill, and wingtips are black. Immatures are whitish below but mottled brownish-rusty above.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Whooping Cranes move at a stately pace, browsing and probing for food rather than hunting patiently and stealthily like a heron. They tend to occur in small flocks (or among much larger numbers of Sandhill Cranes) rather than singly.
To many, such as many Native American cultures, they are much more than big, stately birds. They are symbols and totems that long have been revered and honored. In modern times, they are special to residents of the Texas coast and hold a special place among birding enthusiasts around the world.
Whooping cranes are, of course, one of the world's most endangered species and a
focus of intense conservation efforts, though it has been long since they have been seen in such abundant numbers.
But in spite of their growing numbers in recent years, biologists believe only about 10,000 of the birds lived in North America prior to European colonization. Some of those cranes were year-round (non-migratory) residents of the Gulf Coast. In that respect, one could say they are native Texans at heart. Many others, however, have always been migratory, nesting in the far north and wintering in the Gulf Coastal region.
The last of the Texas whooping cranes disappeared in the 1940s, and the migrant population was ultimately reduced to about 22 birds. A combination of
habitat destruction and humans intervention caused these magnificent creatures to teeter on the edge of extinction.
In spite of their numbers today, the birds still remain perilously in danger and their continued existence remains in question. Efforts to establish other flocks of whooping cranes are underway but face uncertain futures.
Today, the only wild flock of whooping cranes winter along a small section of the
Texas coast each year where they have been a part of the natural world for at least 10,000 years.
The rare cranes have features that distinguish them from the more common Sandhill
crane. Whooping cranes are much taller, approximately 5 feet tall and fly with their neck outstretched. Adults are all white with the exception of black wing tips and reddish-black facial pattern.
If you hope to see one of wild Whoopers up close in the wild, your best bet these days may be to attend the annual Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas, Get the details on this year's festival here.