Whooping Crane (Grus americana)
Named for its whooping call, the Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is unique in a number of ways. Firstly, at 1.5 meters in height with a wingspan of 2.3 meters, this beautiful bird is the tallest bird in North America. It is also unique in that it is the only crane species that is found exclusively in North America. However, despite their immense size, Whooping Cranes are an endangered species. When counted in 1995, there were 149 Whooping Cranes in the US. This is quite an increase from the 14-16 that were around in the 1940s but a far cry from the 1,500 or so that inhabited parts of western Canada and the US in the 1800s. Fortunately conservations efforts have been largely successful and there are currently more than 320 Whooping Cranes in the world.
Because of their immense size, Whooping Cranes are easily identifiable. They are very large birds with long legs and a long neck. Their dark bills are long and pointed and their long dark legs trail behind them when they fly. Whooping Cranes tend to hold their necks straight, both when resting and during flight, instead of adopting the S-like bend that many other long-necked birds make use of. Adults have a red crown and entirely white plumage. There is a bit of black near the base of their bills which extends onto the cheeks somewhat. You might also spot black wing tips when the adult bird is in flight. Juvenile birds have a white body with scattered brown feathers as well as a pale brown head and neck.
The Whooping Crane prefers to make use of ‘muskegs’ for breeding purposes. Currently there is only one known nesting location – that of Wood Buffalo National Park which is in Canada. The Whooping Crane nests on the ground in a marshy area. The female lays 1-3 eggs and both the male and female raise the young. Whooping cranes generally mate for life. Usually only one bird survives and the weaker is starved to death or pushed out the nest. Whooping Cranes are omnivorous and they eat snails, insects, leeches, minnows, frogs, small rodents, waste grain, plant roots and berries. They may scavenge on dead birds or muskrats, and in Texas they have been known to eat snakes, acorns, wild fruit, small fish and shellfish. Most of their food is obtained by foraging in shallow water or in fields. The main reason for this bird’s dwindling numbers is that of habitat loss. Fortunately several crane conservation projects have resulted in varying measures of success but the bird still has a long way to go before it is no longer considered to be an endangered species.