Since I featured the American white pelican last week, and explained the difference between its flight appearance and that of the whooping crane, I figured I would feature the latter this week.
Now, I think it should be noted that we are much more likely to see white pelicans and snow geese (both white with black on the wings) in Pontotoc County than whooping cranes. However, I think it’s beneficial to be able to tell one from the other, just in case.
I truly do not know if whooping cranes have flown over Pontotoc County, but I would bet they have. Pontotoc County just about borders the eastern edge of their flight path.
Whooping cranes are among the rarest birds in North America, and are the rarest crane species in the world. But it wasn’t always that way.
It is believed that there were about 10,000 birds or more prior to European settlement in the country. However, due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss, the whooping crane population dwindled to just 15 birds in 1941.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, all of the whooping cranes alive today, both wild and captive, are descendants of the last 15 remaining cranes that were found wintering at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on coastal Texas in 1941.
To avert the bird’s extinction, conservationists in the U.S. and Canada took incredible efforts over the years to save the species.
There are now just over 500 birds in the only wild population. However, they remain an endangered species.
And the only natural wild population of whooping cranes nests mostly in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas.
There are also many birds in captivity where researchers continue recovery efforts. There is a small permanent population in Florida, along with a flock that nests in Wisconsin, then migrates to Florida with the aid of people flying ultra-lite aircrafts.
The whooping crane is named for its resonant call, which can be heard over great distances thanks to an extra-long trachea that coils around the bird’s breastbone, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
At a standing height of about 5 feet, the whooping crane is the tallest flying bird in the United States.
Whooping cranes are mostly white, with long, black legs. They have a red crown, blackish-red face and a bill that is rather olive in color.
Whooping cranes have wingspans of 7 to 7.5 feet. They have black primary wing feathers which are only visible in flight.
In the fall, juveniles have a rusty brown plumage with some white adult feathers beginning to appear. By the time they leave for Canada in the spring, juveniles are all white, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
As mentioned previously, whooping cranes nest in northwestern Canada, eh, and winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and surrounding areas. However, during migration, they can be seen in many states in between, including Oklahoma. When they pass through Oklahoma, it is mostly through the western half of the state — west of Interstate 35. They migrate during the day, and make regular stops along the way.
Whooping cranes have long necks, which they keep outstretched during flight. Also, they have black primary wing feathers only, whereas the primary and outer secondary wing feathers of white pelicans are black. Also, pelicans keep their necks drawn back during flight, like an “s” shape, as do egrets.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reports that the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge near Jet is a very important migration stopover area for whooping cranes and has been designated as critical habitat for the species.
ODWC also reports that whooping cranes are typically seen in the state in the months of April and October. However, most whooping crane sightings occur in Oklahoma from mid-October through November.
The Wildlife Department encourages people to submit sightings of whooping cranes to wildlifedepartment.com.
According to ODWC, while moving through Oklahoma, whooping cranes typically use shallow wetlands, marshes, the margins of ponds and lakes, sandbars, shorelines of shallow rivers, wet prairies and crop fields near water.
On their Texas wintering grounds, Whooping Cranes spend their time on estuarine marshes, shallow bays, and tidal flats, sometimes venturing to nearby farmland.
During migration, whooping cranes will eat waste grains like barley, wheat and corn, usually left over in harvested fields.
At their wintering grounds, they eat shrimp, crabs, clams, snails, insects frogs, snakes, small fish, seeds, acorns, roots and berries.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, whooping cranes are monogamous and mate for life. Mated pairs perform an elaborate dance display during courtship. Females usually lay two eggs. Sadly, usually only the first-hatched chick survives, unless habitat conditions are just right. Both sexes share incubation and brood-rearing duties.
Food availability and predator abundance are major factors in chick survival, according to the ABC.
Odds and ends
• One of the best ways to observe whooping cranes, especially up close, is to take a paid tour. My son and I took one of these tours long ago, and we were able to get to within about 20 yards of several whoopers. Most paid tours are out of the Rockport/Fulton area of Texas.
And please remember, in October, I’ll be featuring several creepy creatures in my columns. So be ready!
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.