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: South Dakota

Q: Please differentiate for me between whooping crane and pelican migrations. I thought a flock of whoopers soared overhead on April 2. They had a distinctive sound, I could hear them coming for miles.They were white with black tips and rode the wind currents as opposed to flying. What else should I know so I can make accurate reports.

A: Pelicans can migrate individually, in enormous flocks, or anything in between. Whooping Cranes usually migrate in small family units—how many birds did you see? That, of course, just gives hints about probabilities, since sometimes Whooping Crane families join with other families during legs of the journey.
Both cranes and pelicans ride thermals, updrafts, and wind currents, so that isn’t a clue that will help you decide which is which. Knowing where you saw them helps some—Whooping Cranes migrate from Texas to Alberta, and from Florida to Wisconsin, so if you’re not roughly on one of those general paths, chances are greater that they were pelicans. But birds do get lost, so that won’t be conclusive, either.

The most important issues are where the black was on their wings and whether and how far the legs and neck jut out. With Whooping Cranes, the black is restricted to the wingtips.

Snow Geese also fly in flocks and have white wing tips. And they can be very noisy.

American White Pelicans and Wood Storks have black down much of the trailing edge of the wing as well as the tips. (American White Pelican >>, Wood Stork >>)

It takes time and patience to notice all the field marks for a bird, to eliminate every other possibility and to see and hear all the distinguishing characteristics that positively identify your bird. Sometimes we can be pretty sure about a bird without being 100 percent positive. Nothing wrong with that! Each time that happens, we learn more important things to look for on our next rare sighting.

From: Minnesota

Q: Do they have to wear those bands? Isn't there a better way than those antennas to track them?

A: Researchers and conservationists wish there were! Technology has made wonderful progress in making transmitters ever tinier, and everyone at WCEP does their best to keep up with the latest advances. They also do their best to limit distress, discomfort, and inconvenience for the birds. But the antennas really don’t seem to bother them. And tracking them has proven very important for helping some of the birds when they’ve been in trouble, while never seeming to cause any real harm to any of them..

Q: Why don't they have chicks hatching in Wisconsin?

A: Actually, two chicks were raised in Wisconsin by Ultralight-trained Whooping Cranes, and one, #W601, a female, is doing well and courting. Since 2006, we've had bad weather on and off, but no one really knows why the last two years have had zero success with chicks. This year each breeding pair will be studied extremely closely. As of April 16 there were nine pairs attempting to nest in Wisconsin. They will all be monitored so if nests do fail again, we’ll get some clues about what is happening that is making them fail.

Q: Do you think the DAR birds, and also #107, who have not been hanging around with whooping cranes, will ever have chicks?

A: It’s hard to say. The one thing I’ve learned over many years of watching and studying birds is that they’re unpredictable. But if the birds don’t have close socialization with adult cranes, that will certainy reduce their chances of meeting and successfully courting a mate.

Laura Erickson
Twin Beaks!
iTunes podcast of For the Birds
For the love, understanding and protection of birds.