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Endangered Species: The whooping crane

Photo courtesy of USFWS/Flickr

Photo courtesy of USFWS/Flickr

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Friday, November 1, 2013, 7:57 AM -

With a height of up to 5 feet and a wingspan that can reach 7.5 feet, the whooping crane is North America's tallest bird.

Primarily found in Alberta and the Northwest Territories in the summer and along the Texas Gulf Coast in the winter, this bird is named after the "whooping" sound it makes, and can live for up to 24 years. 

Pairs mate for life and females typically lay 1-2 eggs at a time, usually between late April and mid-May.

At one point, this species was abundant: During the 1800, there were approximately 10,000 cranes across northwestern portions of the continent -- but aggressive over-hunting and habitat destruction decimated the species.

By the 1940s -- 70 years after European settlers hunters declared open season on the whooping cranes -- there were only 22 left.

BIRDS ON THE BRINK: Learn about the spotted owl, another Canadian endangered species

Aggressive conservation efforts are helping whooping crane crawl back from the brink of extinction: In 2012, there were more than 500 in existence.

Today, most whooping cranes are born in captivity. An international recovery plan was established in 1986 by a team of biologists and experts from Canada and the U.S. The aim is to have the cranes removed from the endangered species list -- a task that has proven to be both challenging and costly.

Photo courtesy of USFWS/Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of USFWS/Wikimedia Commons

Captive breeding and reintroduction programs have raised the wild population significantly.

Chicks are hatched in isolation and human interaction is kept to a minimum, and when it's time for the chicks to make their first trip south, aircraft leads the young cranes on their inaugural journey. 

The estimated cost of raising and introducing a crane into the wild is $100,000.

Today, the largest threats facing the species are the destruction of wetlands and collisions with power lines.

Hunting is no longer a major issue, thanks to strict government sanctions.

In February 2013, for example, a man from South Dakota was fined $85,000, had his rifle confiscated and was sentenced to two years of probation for shooting and killing a whooping crane.

In spite of this, the slow and steady process of saving this species is far from over. 

While much of the wetlands the birds frequent are protected, oil spills, reduced water flows at key migration sites and human development continue to put stress on an already critical situation.


  • Become an advocate for power line markers. Studies suggest that power line markers can reduce bird collisions by up to 80 percent, yet many North American lines remain unmarked. Learn more here
  • Help officials track whooping cranes. Report any sightings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
  • Report any illegal hunting activities or destruction of wetlands to 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667)

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