One of North America's rarest birds, the whooping crane, is about to make its annual fall journey through Oklahoma. The last remaining wild-born whooping cranes, numbering about 195 birds, are en route from their ancestral breeding grounds in the bogs and marshes of northern Canada to their wintering grounds on the Texas coast. They are expected to pass through Oklahoma in the last week of October and first week of November.
"Whooping cranes have never been common in historic times," said Mark Howery Natural Resources Biologist, "however breeding populations were scattered across the northern Great Plains from the Dakotas through central Canada, as well as along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. As Europeans began to settle this country, whooping cranes where killed for food by early settlers and the wetlands in which they nest and feed were converted to agricultural uses. By the early 1900s only a few dozen were left and by 1941 the population had been reduced to just 15 to 20 birds. The entire resident population along the Gulf Coast had been eliminated, and the only birds in the interior of the continent were a small group that nested in a remote section of northern Canada. These birds are the founder stock for all of the whooping cranes that exist today."
Conservation measures such as the protection of the cranes' breeding and wintering habitat have helped to bring about a slow but steady increase in the population. Monitoring of cranes during their long migration has helped as well by identifying important stopover habitats for the birds as well as potential migration hazards. Additionally, in the 1960s and 1970s eggs were collected from wild whooping crane nests and hatched in captivity to establish a captive population in the event that the wild population was lost. Fortunately, the wild population continues to thrive and the captive population has reproduced and grown to over 140 birds. Though no captive-raised birds have been released back into the wild migratory population, captive-raised cranes are being used to re-establish a wild, non-migratory population in Florida.
"The whooping crane is a conservation success story in the making,"
Howery said. "As the population increases, so does the number of crane observations in Oklahoma. Most of the birds are seen in the vicinity of wetlands or flooded crop fields in the central part of the state. Usually the cranes remain at any one spot for only a day or two before moving on south, because they must make their long journey from northern Alberta, Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christie, Texas in less than 5 weeks."
Whooping cranes are large birds that are identifiable by their white plumage, black wingtips and red forehead. Cranes fly with their long necks extended straight and their legs extending back well beyond the tail. "They normally migrate during the day in small flocks of two to six birds and sometimes join larger flocks of sandhill cranes for part of the migration," Howery added. "At night, they roost in shallow water in rivers and marshes."
Several birds can be easily mistaken for whooping cranes. Sandhill cranes are primarily gray with gray wing feathers instead of being white with black wingtips. Snow geese have a similar color pattern as whooping cranes, but they are considerably smaller, usually fly in large flocks and have short legs that are barely visible behind the body. White pelicans also have a similar color patter but they have a stockier build than cranes and have short legs. Finally, the great egret is a long white bird like a crane, but it lacks the black wingtips and red forehead and it flies with its neck tucked close to the body and held in an "S" shape. Anyone spotting a whooping crane is encouraged to contact the Department's Natural Resources Section at (405) 521-4616. Such reports help Howery and other biologists gain a better understanding of the crane's migration path and habitat needs.
Simply report the time, date and location of the sighting as well as the habitat and number of birds seen.
For more information about the Whooping Crane, a free brochure is available by writing to the ODWC's Wildlife Diversity Program at 1801 N.
Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City, OK 73105.