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: Tennessee
Owl's Hill Nature Sanctuary

Q: Our state is considering a hunting season for whooping cranes. I know this has been approved in some other states; could you address this issue?

A: No state is considering a hunting season for Whooping Cranes, which are a critically endangered species, listed and given full protection by the U.S. Federal Government. The only states that don’t list the Whooping Crane on their endangered species list don’t include it simply because Whooping Cranes don’t live there at all.

Some states have a hunting season for Sandhill Cranes, which are neither endangered nor threatened, and in most places now, their population is growing. So I suspect more and more states will eventually add Sandhill Cranes to their list of approved game species.

We do need to remember that hunters provide much of the money that saves the habitat that Whooping Cranes need. Did you know that 73% of the money used to buy the land for the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge came from Duck Stamps, which hunters must buy in order to hunt ducks? Almost 45% of the money used to make St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, where some of the Class of 2008 will winter, also came from Duck Stamp money. Duck Stamps also provided 43% of the money to set aside Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where the wild whoopers that breed in Canada spend their winter. I’m not a hunter and seeing dead birds makes me very sad. And Sandhill Cranes mate for life and seem genuinely devoted to their mate, so losing one crane probably harms the mate for at least a while. But we do have to remember that we’d have way fewer live Sandhill and Whooping Cranes without hunters saving habitat.

If you are not a hunter but do want to protect the land that Sandhill and Whooping Cranes need, please consider buying a Duck Stamp at your post office. A full 98 percent of all the money spent on Duck Stamps goes directly to buying and leasing habitat that waterfowl, cranes, and a great many non-game birds need. But rest assured that even though hunters have provided so much money that helps cranes, no state could possibly be allowed to create a hunting season for Whooping Cranes, and I know of no hunters who would want one.

From: Oregon

Q: We were camping at Davis Lake in Central Oregon the last few days in October. We heard the trilling of cranes and assumed they were sandhills, which we've seen there before. We paddled out across the lake toward the sound and also toward some giant white birds. I got the binoculars on them and saw it was a flock of about 30 whooping cranes. I had no idea how unlikely this was until we returned home and I researched for information on these cranes. No one believes me that we saw whooping cranes in Oregon. Has there ever been a sighting of them here? Could they be remnants of a migrating flock from long ago?

A: It’s possible that these birds were from the wild group that migrate from Wood Buffalo to Aransas, and somehow got diverted during migration. But it’s more likely that they weren’t Whooping Cranes but very pale Sandhill Cranes. Sandhill Cranes “paint” their feathers by smearing mud on them while preening. When the mud has a lot of iron, it turns the cranes quite brown. During migration when many of them gather together, the ones whose feathers didn’t pick up iron can look very pale in comparison, and are often mistaken for whoopers. Another huge bird that is very frequently mistaken for a Whooping Crane is the American White Pelican, which is common in Oregon. Somehow from a distance that long bill can confuse our eyes! Snow Geese are also sometimes mistaken for cranes.

Even during migration, Whooping Cranes don’t live in large flocks. Virtually all fall migrants are seen in groups of 2, 3, or 4—one mated pair and any young they produced that year. I’ve spent time in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in winter where I’ve often seen 30 or more Whooping Cranes in a single day. But I didn’t see these birds in one large group—they were pairs or small family groups with a lot of space between the groups.

But as I said, it is possible that you saw Whooping Cranes. Birds fly and are also functionally illiterate, so haven’t read the bird books that tell us how they’re supposed to be behaving. And many times birders find birds that are off-course or extremely rare. For these birds to make it into the record books, the birder must carefully document the sighting, explaining every field mark seen, and thoroughly explaining how they distinguished this bird from every other similar species. In the case of exceptional records, photographs or sound recordings are often absolutely necessary for a sighting to be accepted. I’m a birder, and I know how frustrating it is when one of my sightings isn’t accepted. But I’m glad that when I read a birding book that tells me what birds live in what places, I know that the information has all been thoroughly checked.

From: Wisconsin
Visions II

Q: What happens to the cranes that are left behind or can not migrate?

A: In the wild, parent cranes would never leave any colt behind unless it got very late in the season and the young crane simply couldn’t fly. If this happened, the young crane would die. Fortunately, the cranes that live in the wild come from healthy parents that migrated well, and they pass on their genes to their babies, so it’s exceptionally rare that a young crane cannot fly by fall.

If one of the WCEP cranes reached fall and was unable to fly, depending on the reasons why it couldn’t fly, whether it was otherwise healthy, and other factors, it would be kept as part of the captive flock.

Q. How long do cranes live in the wild/captivity?

A: The oldest known wild crane, called “the Lobstick male,” hatched in 1978 and will turn 30 in June. The oldest crane in captivity, called Rattler, lives at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. He’s 39 years old. You can read about them here: >>

You can also read about the day Rattler broke the all-time record for longevity here:>>

Q: What is the oldest crane that still can migrate?

A: The Lobstick male, who is almost 30, is still migrating just fine. Tom Stehn wrote about this crane in his March 14, 2008 report to Journey North. It was made into a special slide show permanently available here: >>

From: Illinois

Q: Where do we find information on how the eggs are gathered and taken to Necedah, Wisconsin for each year's training?

A: Some eggs are laid by captive cranes living at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Other eggs are shipped there from special places where captive cranes live, such as the International Crane Foundation. Captive Whoopers and the eggs they lay play an important role in bringing back this endangered species.

Whooping Cranes have been endangered for a long, long time, and all the birds in captivity are descendents from a very few original wild birds. Eggs are no longer taken from the wild Wood Buffalo flock. So scientists work hard to ensure that the eggs chosen from captive birds each year are as genetically diverse as possible to ensure that the birds and, especially, the eggs that they produce in the future will be as healthy as possible. Read about this here: >>

In the wild, when a pair of Whooping Cranes starts nesting, very often something—a raccoon, skunk, larger predator, or other animal, steals one or both eggs. So Whooping Cranes are adapted to dealing with this. If one egg is taken, the female lays another egg, and if this egg, too, is taken, she lays yet another one! Scientists don’t want any female crane to waste too much energy laying eggs, but taking one or two doesn’t seem to harm the female or to make her distressed the way she’d be if one of her chicks were taken. So this is how scientists get the eggs from these captive birds.

From: Minnesota

Q: Is there any way they can shorten the time it takes for the chicks and ultralights to reach Florida in the fall?

A: The time it takes is affected more by weather than any other factor. We can never predict weather or flying conditions, but after one migration with Sandhill Cranes in 2000 and seven migrations with Whooping Cranes in the years after, we’ve learned, the hard way, that those mountains in Tennessee consistently cause the longest delays. Is there a route between the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida that doesn’t go over those mountains? There is, and this season the flock will use this new route. Pilots have assured ultralight pilot Joe Duff that the weather is much better when they don't need to deal with the mountain range. Watch the spring 2008 Whooping Crane Reports on Journey North as well as the fall Journey South reports to learn more about it as details are revealed by Operation Migration.

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