Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Whooping Crane Spotted in Georgia

An adult whooping crane
A crane in a Georgia marsh
Ebon's breeder recently took the interesting photograph on the left near her home in Southern Georgia. There are fifteen species of crane in the world, and the whooping crane (Grus americana) is the only species that this bird could possibly be. There are approximately six hundred of these birds in the world, including those that are in captivity. However, whooping cranes are not normally found in Georgia. So, how did this bird wind up here?

The current distribution of these birds is highly relevant to their history as an endangered species. In 1941 there were only fifteen of the birds left in the world, making the species critically endangered and close to extinction. These fifteen birds were part of a population that migrated from the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Through protection efforts, the numbers were able to begin to bounce back. However, conservationists were concerned that relying on a single population could still result in the loss of the entire species though illness or natural disaster. So, effort was put toward creating several different populations of birds.

A juvenile whooping crane
The first attempt was to create a population of whooping cranes in Idaho, but this group of birds has since completely collapsed. The next population became established in Kissimmee Florida. Though the population has done rather well, these birds were never able to learn to migrate. Normally, the chicks would learn the migratory path from the adult birds, but these chicks were being raised by humans. Since the species is a historically migratory bird, this is of concern. There had to be same way to teach the birds a new migration route.

Young cranes following the ultralight
The solution came in the form of an ultralight plane. Chicks were raised by hand using white suits and puppet heads to prevent imprinting on humans. The young birds were then taught to follow the small aircraft, whose wings were painted with dark tips to resemble the wings of the adult birds. Through the use of this plane, a population migrating between the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida has been established.

There is also now another non-migratory population that has been experimentally established in White River, Louisiana.

So, back to how a whooping crane could have possibly ended up in Georgia. There are two possible explanations. First, a bird from the permanent Florida population somehow made it over the border. Second, a bird from the Florida-Wisconsin migratory population spent a little time resting on the way to its breeding grounds. The latter seems like the most likely explanation since it is spring and approximately the right time for these birds to be leaving their wintering grounds.

No matter the reason, seeing one of these endangered birds in the wild is a rare treat. If you ever see a whooping crane in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like you to report your sighting using the following form: Reporting Whooping Crane Observation.

Sources are the International Crane Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, and IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. First image is copyright to Kathy F. Additional images are from Wikimedia Commons and are copyright free: one, two, three.


  1. My grandfather owned an early telephone company that was involved in putting up poles and new wires. Whooping cranes kept flying into them and shorting them out by touching two wires. He hated them, but of course they were here first.

    1. It's true. Unfortunately, there are a lot of species that had bad raps for one reason or another. Sometimes it was because of little things like this, where something like spreading the wires farther apart may have fixed the problem, but often it was due to misunderstanding about the animal.

      Apparently a number of whoopers have been intentionally shot fairly recently. Not good for a species whose numbers are still so low.