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Whooping Cranes in North Dakota

I received a phone call from a friend recently who was pretty excited — he had just seen six whooping cranes in a field in western McLean County.

They were around five feet tall, white, with a red cap. When they jumped around, he could see black wingtips. Those are the markings of whooping cranes!

We hear about sightings of whooping cranes in the state during their spring and fall migration, but how fortunate to be able to see these magnificent and rare birds?

In Robert Stewart's book, Breeding Birds of North Dakota, he notes that North Dakota was within the historical breeding range of the species. Historical observations in the state during the breeding season ranged widely, and included observations from Cavalier, Grand Forks, McLean, McHenry, Morton, Nelson, Rolette, Stutsman, Pembina, Walsh, and Ward counties. As late as the summer of 1915, four breeding pairs were observed in a meadow near Towner in McHenry County.

Whooping cranes were probably never very common in North Dakota. But by the 1940s, largely due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss, their numbers plummeted to less than a couple dozen. Thanks to vigorous recovery management and reintroduction programs, the population's number is now around 600 birds.

Presently, the only naturally self-sustaining population is the Aransas Wood Buffalo population (more than 500 birds) which breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta and winters in coastal wetlands in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

In addition, there are three other unsustaining populations: a non-migratory reintroduction in central Florida, another reintroduced population that migrates between Wisconsin and Florida, and a non-migratory flock in Louisiana.

The populations of whooping cranes fluctuate from year to year, but the Aransas Wood Buffalo population is averaging around a 4% annual increase. It is these birds that migrate through North Dakota. So, we might be able to see more whooping cranes in the future! And, perhaps, whooping cranes will someday return to nest in the state.

More resources:

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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