Frequently Asked Questions
Students' Questions and Experts' Answers
Contributed by Whooping Crane expert Laura Erickson
Ways to use in the Classroom

Laura goes for an ultralight ride with Joe Duff


Special thanks to ornithologist Laura Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions below.

From: Arlington Heights, Illinois

Q: Has any significant research been conducted to measure the overall intelligence of the Whooping Crane in relation to other birds? If so, what were the findings?
Most of the research on avian intelligence is conducted on birds raised in captivity for various research projects, with no need to maintain natural behaviors. Whooping Cranes are so rare right now that there just aren’t “extra” ones that can be used for this kind of research.

That said, I think it’s fair to assume, until we get confirming or disproving data, that Whooping Crane intelligence is fairly similar to intelligence in other species that migrate long distances over wide stretches of inappropriate habitat (which requires adaptability to survive temporary rests in unfamiliar surroundings). Cranes learn what to eat from their parents, remaining with them throughout their first summer, the entire migration south and the entire winter. Through observing their parents, and via trial and error, they learn the skills they need for such intricate tasks as extracting the meat from blue crabs and building nests. So they probably aren’t as adaptable and intelligent by some measures as birds in the crow or chickadee families, which are omnivores who need to explore wide ranges of potential items and remember food storage places. Cranes also don’t have the complicated social systems and communications systems of birds in crow, chickadee or parrot family. But they have enough intelligence to learn and adapt to the habitats of their world. As long as we protect that world that they need, they have the skills to endure.

Q: As compared to other similar species, how defensive/aggressive will a mother crane be in defense of her young?

A: Both parent cranes protect their young. In Florida, after a Bald Eagle killed one baby Whooping Crane and returned later to take the other one, the parents beat it up bad enough that the eagle needed to be brought to a raptor rehabilitation center!

From: Ocala, Florida

Q: Where is #615?

A: As of April 19, this yearling, the sole survivor of the 2006 Ultralight class, was still in Florida. You can keep track of where he is by checking his life story page on Journey North. [read more >>]

From: Jake Middle School
China, Maine

Q: What are problems that whooping cranes have with the environments they live in?
Probably the worst problem they have is with power and telephone wires and guy wires. The cranes sometimes crash into them. They also have problems sometimes with litter—in once case, a Whooping Crane almost died when its beak got caught in a can top! Whooping Cranes need high quality wetlands, and on the estuaries where they spend the winter, they need enough fresh water to support blue crab populations.

Q: How could freezing temperatures affect the whooping crane? Thanks!

Estuaries don’t freeze easily because salt water has a lower freezing temperature than fresh water, so cranes don’t have many problems with freezing temperatures until they migrate north in spring. Frozen ground, a crust of ice on water, and snow can make it difficult or impossible for Whooping Cranes to find food. Fortunately, if they were well-nourished during winter, they are big enough to deal with short-term bad weather situations. They are sturdy enough and well-insulated enough to survive cold temperatures as long as they can find some food.

From: Journey North

Q: What if whooping crane siblings in the Eastern flock pair up and lay eggs. Would they do that? Would that be okay?

That would be a problem. Researchers are working hard to keep track of the genetic lineage of each bird, and are hopeful that by selecting birds from captive stock that display as wide a variety of parental genes, that mating with siblings won’t happen much if at all.

Q: Do you think there’s a chance that #615 would end up staying in Florida and not migrating? He missed some legs of the ultralight trip down.

It’s hard to predict! On the one hand, many times yearling Whooping Cranes finish their migration without their parents. There does seem to be an internal compass that helps cranes recognize their latitude and longitude. So there’s quite a bit of hope that he will head out and end up near where he was raised. On the other hand, #615 survived the horrible storm last year for the exact same reasons that he was so difficult to lead on migration—he is what we call a “maverick,” doing things different from what most of his kind do. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that he finds his way back to Wisconsin and leads a healthy, long life and successfully finds a mate. But only time will tell.

Q. Do reintroduced cranes have any different qualities or experiences that reflect their migration or survival that differs from wild whooping cranes, and how?

A. They sure do! Each pair of wild Whooping Cranes leads their babies on migration as a family unit. The parents provide protection for the babies, and lead them on days when thermals are favorable for covering vast distances. In nature, birds remain separated in family groups. The parents protect the babies from predators and from competitions with older unattached cranes. And the natural territorial spacing of family groups also prevents the kind of stunning catastrophes that happened in this winter’s storm when all but one of last year’s babies (Hatch Year 2006) were in the same spot, and so were all killed together.

The humans involved in the reintroduction projects do everything they can to provide the babies with the kind of education that wild birds give their young, and are constantly learning from experiences, good and bad, but obviously cannot provide as perfect an upbringing as wild parents can give their young. The goal of this program isn’t for people to raise cranes forever, but to establish the cranes with enough proper natural skills that the birds can once again take over and raise their own babies. Based on the experiences of #W601, the project is going pretty darned well!

Laura Erickson
For the Birds
For the love, understanding and protection of birds.