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Whooping CranesCelebrating 40 years of protecting Wisconsin's natural heritage

Live online crane chat

Ask your questions about whoopers during our live online chat from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 19. Join Heather Ray, director of development for Operation Migration, Sara Gavney Moore and Anne Lacy, communications specialist and crane research coordinator for the International Crane Foundation, respectively, and Davin Lopez, a conservation biologist for DNR, for the hour. Search "ask the experts dnr" at the appointed hour on May 19 to join the chat, or view the transcript later at your leisure at that link.

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 and volunteer opportunities with WCEP partners.
  • 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 to DNR 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 known as the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, WCEP, came together to establish a second flock. After an initial attempt failed in Idaho, Wisconsin was chosen as the home site.

The "wildlife equivalent" of putting a man on the moon

Through releasing young birds in Wisconsin over the past 14 years, WCEP has successfully met interim numerical goals for the flock - 100 birds - and breeding pairs - 25. Partners also have overcome challenges to enable the hatching and rearing of whoopers, to help the birds learn to migrate to and from their winter home in Florida, to form breeding pairs and produce eggs. The cranes haven't yet become a self-sustaining population but studies and actions are underway to help address some of the bottlenecks to natural reproduction.

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

The wind beneath whoopers' wings

Learn more about the organizations working to bring back whoopers.

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 5-1/2 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 safe from coyotes and bobcats. Whooping cranes do not 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.