Whooping cranes are the rarest of all the cranes. According to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), based in Wisconsin, there are currently just over 840 birds in North America (in the wild and human care). The good news is that those numbers are up from only 21 birds in 1944. The primary reason for their decline is due to altered breeding grounds. When settlers moved westward in the late 19th century, they drained swamps and plowed prairies. By the turn of the century, the whooping crane had disappeared from much of its breeding range. That is when biologists from the U.S. and Canada stepped up and began a cooperative effort to increase the population through captive breeding. Over the next decades, the captive population grew to nearly 60 birds at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. In 1989, that flock was split up and some of the birds were sent to ICF in Wisconsin.
Named for their loud distinctive call, whooping cranes are the tallest bird in North America, standing up to five feet, and having a wingspan of up to eight feet! They are shy and secretive birds and are sometimes confused with herons, egrets, or sandhill cranes. (One way to tell a crane from a heron or egret is that cranes fly with their necks stretched forward whereas herons and egrets fly with their necks curved back in an S-shape.) Whooping cranes do not nest or roost in trees but prefer shallow water where they build large nests. They are famous for performing lively courtship dances and unison calls. Adult pairs usually raise one chick each season.
Today, in order to continue the practice of not having all of the ‘(crane) eggs in one basket’, White Oak and four other breeding facilities are taking in some of the cranes. Having a species as endangered as the whooping crane housed in more than one facility insures against any kind of catastrophic loss. There are currently five breeding pairs of whooping cranes at White Oak. In April of 2018, two chicks were hatched and raised by their parents here at White Oak. In August of that year, the family was successfully released into the wild in the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in easter Wisconsin. To this day, our partners at ICF keep tabs on them.
White Oak is pleased to be working with this iconic American bird. Our success with other crane species such as Mississippi sandhill cranes and wattled cranes has prepared us to take on this endangered species and we look forward to contributing to its continued success.
Learn more about our conservation work with whooping cranes: