Each spring and fall I am anxious to hear any news of whooping cranes in the state. This year is no exception. It seems like each year a few of them are spotted in the state during their migrations.
At around five feet tall the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. They also sport a white body, red or crimson cap, and impressive 7-foot wingspan. They are quite a sight in flight, with their neck and legs stretched out, and huge wingspan with black tipped wings. The black wing tips are only visible during flight, not when the bird is standing.
Whooping cranes were probably never very common. But their populations plummeted to less than a couple dozen by the early 1940’s, largely due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss. However, thanks to vigorous recovery management and reintroduction programs, the populations now number around 600 birds.
Robert Stewart’s Breeding Birds of North Dakota contains several observations of whooping cranes, apparently breeding in North Dakota during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Observations include two adults and two young south of Jamestown in August 1883. They reportedly were common nesters in Nelson County until 1908. And as late as the summer of 1915 four breeding pairs were observed in a meadow near Towner in McHenry County. He cites other observations from Ward Country, Rolette County, McLean County, Pembina County, Walsh County, and Cavalier County
Presently there are two migratory populations in North America. The only naturally occurring and self-sustaining population breeds in the Northwest Territories and Alberta (largely within Wood Buffalo National Park). Winter is spent along the Texas gulf coast (mainly in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi). The other one, one of three reintroduction programs, summers in Wisconsin and winters in Florida and Louisiana. So, our migrants are likely from the northern Canada breeding population.
Whooping cranes are monogamous and mate for life. If all goes well for them, they will produce 1-3 young each summer. Hopefully in the future we will see more of these magnificent birds here in the state. And maybe, just maybe, we will see an active breeding population.