One of two crane species found in North America, the endangered whooping crane– measuring a stately four to five feet in height–is the continent’s tallest bird. Once widespread throughout North America, the whooping crane faced almost certain extinction in 1937 when the wild population consisted of just fifteen birds. Thanks to dedicated conservation efforts by Canada and the United States, the whooping crane has begun a slow but seemingly steady recovery. Coastal and marine pollution, illegal hunting, and the draining of crucial wetlands habitat pose continued threats to the species’ survival.
The total global population of whooping cranes, including the Aransas-Wood Buffalo migratory flock, the Eastern migratory flock, and the non-migratory Florida flock is less than 400 cranes. An additional 150 or so cranes reside in captivity, including several at the San Antonio Zoo).
Named for their loud, resonating call which carries for miles, whooping cranes are snowy white, with black wing-tips, feet, and beak. Their cheeks and crown are bright red. Juveniles are white with a mottled caramel head and neck. Adults attain a wing-span of up to seven feet. In flight, the whooper extends its long neck and legs.
Whooping cranes breed in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories and migrate 2,400 miles annually to their protected coastal wintering grounds in Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The cranes begin arriving in late October and remain until mid-April, at which time they begin the long journey back to Canada. Each crane family occupies a large territory of approximately one square mile, defending it from predators and other cranes. Crane pairs normally lay two eggs, only one of which usually results in a surviving chick. Each winter, as the whooping cranes migrate from Canada to Texas.
Whooping cranes feed on blue crabs, clams, snails and other small marine creatures, and augment their diet with acorns, berries, insects, and crayfish.
Texas is blessed to have such a rare and beautiful bird as the whooping crane grace its coastal marshes each year. Whoopers can occasionally be viewed from the observation tower and other areas of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, but the best way to view the cranes is by tour boat. Rockport Birding & Kayak Adventures (1-877-892-4737), operates year-round out of Rockport, providing excellent viewing opportunities for whooping cranes and many other bird species.