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Whooping CranesCelebrating 40 years of protecting Wisconsin's natural heritage

Listen to WPR

Listen to Davin Lopez, DNR's whooping crane coordinator, and Joan Garland, International Crane Foundation outreach coordinator, on The Larry Meiller Show live from 11-11:45 Oct. 31 on these WPR Ideas Network stations or online. If you miss the show, you can still listen to the archives

Comeback Champ

Jane Duden at Journey North has done a phenomenal job of gathering and posting information and photos, biographies of chicks and data on them as they mature. The Journey North website is a major outreach tool, reaching 750,000 million students a year and is likely the biggest and best source of education regarding whooping cranes. Journey North is an online science education project in which students track and report migrations of butterflies, birds, and other animals and seasonal changes in the natural world. Jane and the organization's website together are helping assure that a new generation of stewards will keep the whoopers on the comeback trail!

Get involved

There are many opportunities for citizens to support the ongoing reintroduction of whooping cranes.

  • The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website offers links to activities for kids and teachers, volunteer opportunities with WCEP partners, and how to donate to partner efforts to restore cranes.
  • Make a tax deductible donation online to the Wisconsin Endangered Resources Fund to help support DNR's whooping crane work.
  • If you hunt waterfowl, make sure you identify your game before you shoot. Whooping cranes are protected by state and federal laws.
  • If you see a whooper in the wild, please do not approach within 200 yards if you're on foot, or within 100 yards if you're in your car. Report the birds' location and do not attempt to feed them.

An ancient species gets a new lease on life

A fixture in North American skies and wetlands for millions of years, whooping cranes verged on extinction in the 1940s due to hunting and habitat loss. U.S. and Canadian protections and management, including a whooping crane recovery program, have slowly increased the remaining flock. To reduce the species' vulnerability, an international coalition came together to establish a second flock. Wisconsin was chosen as the home site.

Read the rest of the story in the October 2012 Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine: "Come on, Whoopers!"

Flying high now

Whooping cranes have an instinctive urge to migrate but they learn when and where to go from their parents. Because the Wisconsin birds are reared in captivity, they learn their migration routes to Florida's Gulf coast by following an ultra-light plane or behind experienced adult cranes.

Six whooping crane chicks took off Sept. 28 from the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County following an Operation Migration ultra-light plane. Six other young whooping cranes now at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge will be released from their pens later in October to follow experienced adult whooping cranes flying south.

Friends of a feather flock together

Restoring the world's most endangered species of cranes is "the wildlife equivalent of putting the man on the moon," as one U.S. Fish & Wildlife official put it. Today, thanks to efforts of the public and private organizations that form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, there are 104 whooping cranes in the eastern migratory population. Learn more about these efforts and organizations, and continuing challenges for the recovery effort, from these links:

Operation Migration Whooping Crane Cam
Whooping Crane Cam

Fast Facts

Scientific name: Grus americana
Whooping cranes are one of two crane species native to North America, with the other species the sandhill crane. The bird is named for its loud "whooping" call, which can be heard of up to five miles away. Whooping cranes may live up to 24 to 25 years in the wild. Captive birds have lived up to 40 years.

Identifying marks:
Whooping cranes stand nearly 5 feet tall and are the tallest birds in North America. Adult whooping crane plumage is white with black wing tips. They have a bald spot on their forehead.

Habits and habitat:
Whooping cranes feed and nest in shallow water wetlands. They build their nests on small islands of bulrushes, cattails, and sedges that provide protection from predators. At night (when not incubating), whooping cranes stand in shallow water where they are safer from coyotes and bobcats. Whooping cranes do not usually start breeding until they are 4 or 5 years old; females lay two eggs in late-April to mid-May that hatch 30 days later. Fierce competition between the chicks for food typically leads to only one chick surviving. During migration, the wild population uses a variety of feeding and roosting habitats, including croplands, marshes, and submerged sandbars in rivers. They winter in bays and coastal marshes in and near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. The eastern population winters at two national wildlife refuges in Florida along the Gulf of Mexico.

Whooping cranes feed in shallow water wetlands and eat insects, minnows, crabs, clams, crayfish, and frogs. During migration and on their wintering grounds they sometimes feed in upland areas, especially in areas that have been flooded or burned. There they forage for acorns, snails, insects, rodents, and other food items.

Fun Fact:
The crane's windpipe coils about 9 inches into its breast bone while the bird calls, increasing volume and allowing for variation in pitch. Cranes use their call to signal danger, to defend their territory, and to court potential mates.

More information

Got a question about whoopers?
Ask your questions about whooping cranes during an Oct. 10 live chat on the topic. The session with Davin Lopez, a DNR conservation biologist and coordinator of the whooping crane partnership, and Joan Garland, International Crane Foundation outreach director, begins at 11:30 a.m. Participate online or review the transcript.