Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane


  • Standing at 1.3 metres (4 feet), the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America.
  • Wingspan can measure up to 2.5 metres (8 feet).


  • Adult male and female are similar in appearance, and distinguishing characteristics include:
    • snowy white body plumage with black wingtips
    • long neck, long dark pointed bill, and long thin black legs
    • bare patch of red skin on the head that extends backward from the bill
    • bright yellow eye with an area below that has short fine black feathers and looks like a long dark moustache
    • small patch of black feathers at the back of the head
  • Immature whooping cranes are rusty or cinnamon brown. As they get older, the brown gradually is replaced by white.
  • Migrating young usually have a brown head and neck and a mixture of brown and white on the body. The wing feathers are white with brown tips.
  • The whooping crane is the only large white bird with black wingtips that flies with the neck straight out in front and the legs trailing far behind.


  • The loud whooping or bugling, for which these birds were named, is usually heard:
    • early in the morning
    • during the spring courtship
    • when birds are defending their nesting territories
    • anytime when birds are alarmed or upset
  • These deep, sonorous trumpeting noises are probably produced by forcing air through the great length of convoluted windpipe that lies coiled within the breastbone.
  • The current breeding distribution of wild whooping cranes is restricted to a small area in the northern part of Wood Buffalo National Park, near Fort Smith, N.W.T. However, there are efforts underway to establish a second breeding flock in Wisconsin.
  • The population is migratory and winters in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf coast of southern Texas. The Wisconsin flock winters in Florida.
  • An experimental population in Idaho did not breed successfully and has since disappeared.
Natural History


  • Typical nesting habitat for this bird is a territory that contains a variety of marshes, ponds, and creeks with enough food for a breeding pair and their young.


  • The whooping crane is fairly opportunistic (i.e., it takes what it can get) and eats a variety of aquatic and terrestrial animals.
  • Summer diet for this bird can include:
    • Snails
    • Larval insects
    • Leeches
    • Frogs
    • Minnows
    • Small rodents such as voles, lemmings, or shrews
  • Larger food can also be taken, such as blackbirds and ducklings.
  • Occasionally, berries are eaten, or dead ducks, marsh birds, or muskrats are scavenged.
  • Some of the smaller food items are fed to the young birds as they flap their wings and beg until they are fed.

When Active

  • The whooping crane is found in Alberta between spring thaw and fall freeze-up. It arrives in the Wood Buffalo area in late April and leaves in late September and October.
Reproduction and Growth

Breeding Behaviour

  • Each year, the whooping crane returns to the same nesting area.
  • Adult whooping cranes mate for life but may accept a new mate if one of the pair dies.
  • In early spring, dancing, which is part of the courtship performance, becomes noticeable and intensifies with the advent of spring migration. At the nesting ground, the adults carry out an elaborate courtship display, bobbing, weaving, jumping, and calling with their mates.
  • Whooping cranes nest among dense stands of bullrushes in relatively shallow water. The nest is a large mound of dried bullrushes and, occasionally, sedges. Individual nests are often used for 3 or 4 years.
  • After courtship and mating, the female lays two, large light brown or buffy olive eggs that are heavily marked with dark brown or purple blotches, especially at the large end. Each egg is approximately 10 centimetres (four inches) long, 6 centimetres (two inches) wide, and weighs about 200 grams (seven ounces).
  • Both adults are involved in incubating the eggs for 29 to 30 days. This gives each partner a chance to feed away from the nest.
  • The eggs hatch in late May and early June. Within each nest, the eggs hatch at different times and the second egg or chick often is pushed out of the nest or starved.

Growth Process

  • Newly hatched chicks can swim and the adults and young soon leave the nest, but stay within the nesting territory for the next two months.
  • Young birds are able to fly 80 to 90 days after they hatch, but rarely take to the air before migration.
Conservation and Management


The whooping crane is classified as At Risk in the current General Status of Alberta Wild Species report. See:

This bird species is also listed as Endangered under the Wildlife Act. For more information on this species and the assessment and listing process, see:


  • Wetland degradation and loss may continue to pose threats.
  • Collisions with powerlines during migration are a common cause of death for this species.
  • Frequent stopovers, necessary during migration, become more and more difficult to make as more land is developed for agriculture, industry, or settlement, and fewer suitable resting sites remain.
  • This bird species is sensitive to repeated human disturbance in the nesting area.

Current management

As an Endangered species, the whooping crane is protected by the provincial Wildlife Act and it is illegal to kill or harass individuals or disturb their nests at any time of the year. Alberta is participating on a national recovery team for whooping cranes


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Posted: Aug 8, 2009