Grus americanawhooping crane

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Geographic Range

Grus americana is a native migratory bird species within the Nearctic region. The historical breeding range extends throughout the central United States and Canada and also used to include parts of north central Mexico. Few wild populations occur today. One population breeds within the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and overwinters along the Gulf Coast in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge of Texas. A second, minute population spends the summer in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and migrates to their wintering grounds in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. A third introduced, non-migratory population resides in the Kissimmee Prairie, Florida. When the Wood Buffalo and Rocky Mountain populations migrate, they stop over in the United States and Canada, in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana, and Saskatchewan. (Allen, 1952; Armbruster, 1990; Doughty, 1989; Hayes, et al., 2007; Hughes, 2008; Johnsgard, 1983; Kuyt, 1993; Lewis, 1995)

Habitat

Whooping crane habitat, especially for nesting, consists of open areas close to large amounts of water and vegetation. The open area is especially important to visually detect possible predators. Whooping cranes nest in wetland and marsh areas or close to shallow ponds or lakes. Bulrush (Scirpus validus) marshes and diatom ponds are common and bogs are avoided. The habitats chosen typically include willow, sedge meadows, mudflats, and bulrush and cattail (Typha latifolia) marshes. These habitat types not only provide protection for predators but also provide a variety of food opportunities. During migration, whooping cranes seek similar habitats in wetlands, submerged sandbars and agricultural fields. In the winter, wet habitats are also sought out in the form of brackish bays and coastal marshes. Grus americana prefers marshes with a typical pH range of 7.6 to 8.3. ("Elevation Map Texas Gulf Coast", 2008; Armbruster, 1990; Hughes, 2008; Lewis, 1995; Timoney, 1999; Timoney, et al., 1997; United Nations Environment Programme-Wo, 2008)

The elevation varies considerably due to the wintering and breeding ranges for whooping cranes. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Mexico is at low elevations between 0 to 10 m. The northern breeding grounds in the Wood Buffalo National Park can reach elevations of up to 945 m. ("Elevation Map Texas Gulf Coast", 2008; Armbruster, 1990; Hughes, 2008; Lewis, 1995; Timoney, 1999; Timoney, et al., 1997; United Nations Environment Programme-Wo, 2008)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 945 m
    0.00 to 3100.39 ft

Physical Description

Adult whooping cranes are large, long-legged birds with long necks that measure 130 to 160 cm in length, and feature a wingspan of 200 to 230 cm. They are primarily white in color. Their primary wing feathers and long legs are black, while their toes are grayish-rose in color. The crown, lores, and malar areas are bare skin that varies in color from bright red to black. The bare skin is covered in short, black bristles that are the most dense around the edges of bare skin. They feature yellow eyes and a bill that is pinkish at the base, but mostly gray or olive in color. Both sexes resemble each other, however, the male whooping crane weighs more. Adult males and adult females weigh an average of 7.3 kg and 6.4 kg respectively. Young whooping crane chicks are cinnamon or brown in color along the back and a dull gray or brown on the underbelly. Juvenile whooping cranes have feather-covered heads and white plumage which is blotched cinnamon or brown. The area of the crown which becomes bare skin has short feathers. ("Cranes", 2003; Hughes, 2008; Johnsgard, 1983; Lewis, 1995)

Closely related sandhill cranes are gray and smaller than whooping cranes but they may appear white, especially in the sun. In flight, wood storks resemble whooping cranes, but they feature black secondary as well as primary feathers, yellow feet, and a short neck that is bare, dark skin. ("Cranes", 2003; Hughes, 2008; Johnsgard, 1983; Lewis, 1995)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    4.5 to 8.5 kg
    9.91 to 18.72 lb
  • Range length
    130 to 160 cm
    51.18 to 62.99 in
  • Average length
    150 cm
    59.06 in
  • Range wingspan
    200 to 230 cm
    78.74 to 90.55 in

Reproduction

Whooping cranes are monogamous and form pairs around two or three years old. A pair bond develops through a variety of courtship behaviors including unison walks, unison calls, and courtship dances. Courtship usually begins with dancing, which starts with bowing, hopping, and wing flapping by one, and then both individuals. Each crane repeatedly leaps into the air on stiff legs, which continues until both individuals leap a few times in sync with each other. During the courtship dance the male may also jump over the female as she bows her head toward her body. Calling in unison is also important in pair maintenance and involves a duet between the female and male. The male has a lower call and positions the head straight up and behind vertical while the female is completely vertical or forward of vertical. Once one of the individuals begins the call the other joins in. (Allen, 1952; Hughes, 2008; Johnsgard, 1983; Lewis, 1995)

Once paired, whooping cranes breed seasonally and start nesting at approximately four years of age. Prior to copulation either individual begins walking slowly, with their bill pointed up, and neck forward and fully extended. This individual releases a low growl and the other individual walks with the same style behind the first and calling with its bill up toward the sky. Copulation commonly occurs at daybreak, however it can occur during any time in the day. Nesting pairs generally mate for life, but one will find a new mate following the death of the other. (Allen, 1952; Hughes, 2008; Johnsgard, 1983; Lewis, 1995)

Whooping cranes reproduce once a year from late April to May. Males and females participate in building a flat, ground nest usually on a mound of vegetation surrounded by water. In periods of drought, nesting sites can become no longer suitable for use. Typically two eggs are laid and the incubation period is 30 to 35 days. The sex ratio is nearly equal between the number of males and females hatched. The abandonment or loss of a nest is rare but breeding pairs can re-nest if either occurs within the first fifteen days of incubation. Fledging occurs between 80 to 100 days but the young remain with their parents until they reach independence at 9 months of age. Parents continue to feed and care for the fledgelings. Sexual maturity is reached between 4 and 5 years old. (Hughes, 2008; Kuyt, 1980; Lewis, 1995; Spalding, et al., 2009)

  • Breeding interval
    Whooping cranes breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    Whooping cranes breed from late April to May.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 3
  • Average eggs per season
    2
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    30 to 35 days
  • Average time to hatching
    30 days
  • Range fledging age
    80 to 100 days
  • Average time to independence
    9 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    4 to 5 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 to 5 years

Both the male and female share equally in incubation responsibilities. The individual not incubating guards the nest from predators. Once hatched, young chicks are brooded by their parents at night or during bad weather. When a chick displays hunger, referred to as food begging, the parents provide them with food. The female provides the food more often than the male. The adult grasps the food in its bill and the chicks peck at the food. Food choices are initially worms and insects and grow is size as the chick develops. The young gradually start to feed independently. Food begging can be seen in young birds six to nine months old. The majority of juvenile birds completely leave their parents at the end of spring migration the following year. (Hughes, 2008; Lewis, 1995)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning

Lifespan/Longevity

The estimated longevity of wild whooping cranes is 22 to over 30 years. In captivity, the birds are expected to live up to 35 to 40 years old. The mortality of whooping cranes in their first year is approximately 27%. The survival rate of females for their first year is 55% the survival rate of males. Diseases, such as avian tuberculosis and avian cholera, are possible mortality causes for whooping cranes. A cause of mortality of some captive chicks has been intestinal coccidia parasites. Drought during the breeding season results in greater mortality of the young, since they have to travel farther for food resources and are at risk of attack by terrestrial predators. (Forrester, et al., 1978; Lewis, 1995)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    22 to 30 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    35 to 40 years

Behavior

Whooping cranes are diurnal and roost on the ground at night. Historically, Grus americana is a migratory species, but only two out of the three extant wild populations are migratory. Whooping cranes live primarily in breeding pairs or small family groupings. They are able to move around primarily through walking or flying. During flight, whooping cranes can flap, soar or glide and the use of each is dependent on the nature of flight. Soaring and gliding are more important for long migratory flights. While walking, whooping cranes exhibit head-bobbing behavior. Swimming is generally seen in young chicks. Whooping cranes also have distraction and threat displays to intimidate and ward off predators. (Cronin, et al., 2005; Cronin, et al., 2007; Johnsgard, 1983; Lewis, 1995)

  • Range territory size
    1.3 to 47.1 km^2
  • Average territory size
    4.1 km^2

Home Range

Males are the primary defenders of territories, which average 4.1 square km in size. (Kuyt, 1993; Lewis, 1995)

Communication and Perception

The key form of communication for whooping cranes is vocal communication. Many calls have been identified for this species including: contact calls, stress calls, distress calls, food-begging calls, flight-intention calls, alarm calls, hissing, flight calls, guard calls, location calls, precopulation calls, unison calls, and nesting calls. Territory defense is linked with the unison and guard calls. Unison calls are also important in pair formation. The calls of whooping cranes are important as they serve in deterring predators, warnings of attack, protecting and caring for the young, and locating other individuals within the species. Like all birds, whooping cranes perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. (Cronin, et al., 2005; Cronin, et al., 2007; Lewis, 1995)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

Food Habits

Whooping cranes are omnivorous and eat a variety of plant and animal material both on the ground and in water. The primary wintering foods are blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) and wolfberry fruits (Lycium carolinianum). Other wintering foods include: clams, acorns, snails, grasshoppers, mice, voles and, snakes. Among foods they eat in winter, blue crabs provide the highest crude protein value and wolfberries have the highest metabolic energy and lipid content. On migratory stopovers through the central United States and Saskatchewan, whooping cranes feed on plant tubers and waste grains in agricultural fields. While on breeding grounds their diet consists of minnows, insects, frogs, snakes, mice, berries, crayfish, clams and snails. (Butzler and Davis, 2006; Hughes, 2008; Lewis, 1995; Nelson, et al., 1996)

  • Animal Foods
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • terrestrial worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

Predation

Whooping cranes are subject to predation from both terrestrial and aerial predators Some common terrestrial predators include black bear, wolverines, gray wolves, red foxes, lynx, bobcats, coyotes, and raccoons. Bald eagles, northern ravens, and golden eagles are all aerial predators of cranes. Golden eagles have been reported to attack whooping cranes in the air and are a significant threat during migration. Whooping cranes fly at very high altitudes during migration, which may be a strategy to avoid these fatal aerial attacks. (Cole, et al., 2009; Ellis, et al., 1999; Hughes, 2008; Lewis, 1995)

Whooping cranes are the most vulnerable in the first year and especially up until fledging. Dry years make the young particularly vulnerable as the nests are easily accessible to terrestrial predators. They have a number of strategies for preventing attacks such as alarm calls or a distraction display for large predators. The most common display is a slow walk strut, with the body turned sideways to the predator and the feet lifted high. This emphasizes the crane's large size and may deter an attack. If the predator persists, a whooping crane lowers its bill to the ground and releases a low growl. As a final warning before a physical attack, a crane will face the predator, and spread and droop its wings while extending its neck. When a large predator nears the nest, the incubating parent may leave the nest to lure the predator away by dragging its wing in a distraction display. (Cole, et al., 2009; Ellis, et al., 1999; Hughes, 2008; Lewis, 1995)

Ecosystem Roles

Whooping cranes are both predators and prey to a number of species. Because there are so few of them, they probably can't serve as the main prey to another species. Whooping cranes do play host to some parasites, and Coccidia parasites in particular. These have been found in both captive and wild whooping cranes and are transmitted through feces. These parasites include Eimeria gruis and E. reichenowi. Coccidiosis is less likely to occur in wild populations due to the large territory and small brood size of whooping cranes. (Forrester, et al., 1978; Lewis, 1995)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • coccidia endoparasites (Eimeria gruis)
  • coccidia endoparasites (Eimeria reichenowi)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Whooping cranes serve as an important model for the positive effects of wildlife conservation and management. It is a valuable symbol of conservation and international co-operation between governments for many people. Thousands of people visit the wintering site, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, each year in order to see whooping cranes. (Armbruster, 1990; Hayes, et al., 2007; Lewis, 1995)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no adverse effects of whooping cranes on humans.

Conservation Status

Whooping cranes have been the center of many conservation projects. Even though they are still endangered, they have recovered from levels of near extinction in the 1940's to 1950's. Whooping cranes had a total population of 21 in the winter of 1954 and had approximately 260 individuals in 2009. There are a number of ways in which recovery of whooping cranes has been promoted. This includes protection through laws such as, the United States Migratory Bird Act. There are also intense captive breeding and re-introduction efforts. In some cases eggs produced by captive pairs are cared for by human caretakers dressed as whooping cranes, also known as costume-rearing. These re-introduced birds have experienced problems with migration, and it is presumed that juvenile birds learn migration routes from their parents. To help these birds, small, white planes are used as "parent" birds that guide the juveniles on their first journey to their wintering grounds. These methods have had mixed success, but the population is increasing overall. ("Birds Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act", 2009; Cole, et al., 2009; Doughty, 1989; Urbanek, et al., 2010)

Other Comments

The genus Grus is comprised of ten crane species which is divided into four subgroups. Whooping cranes belong to the subgroup "the Group of Five" which also includes Eurasian cranes (Grus grus), hooded cranes (G. monacha), black-necked cranes (G. nigricollis) and red-crowned cranes (G. japonensis). ("Cranes", 2003; Doughty, 1989)

Contributors

Julia Esch (author), University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, Doris Audet (editor), University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
duets

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

2009. "Birds Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act" (On-line). Accessed October 11, 2010 at http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/RegulationsPolicies/mbta/mbtandx.html#w.

2003. Cranes. Pp. 23-36 in J Jackson, W Bock, D Olendorf, eds. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, Second Edition. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.

2008. "Elevation Map Texas Gulf Coast" (On-line). Accessed November 11, 2010 at http://ftp.txdot.gov/pub/txdot-info/tpp/gulf_coast_elevation_map.pdf.

Allen, R. 1952. The Whooping Crane: Research Report No. 3 of the National Audubon Society. New York, NY: National Audubon Society.

Armbruster, M. 1990. Characterization of Habitat Used by Whooping Cranes During Migration. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Biological Report, 90(4): 1-16.

Butzler, R., S. Davis. 2006. Growth patterns of Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum L.) in the salt marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, USA. Wetlands, 26(3): 845-853.

Cole, G., N. Thomas, M. Spalding, R. Stroud, R. Urbanek, B. Hartup. 2009. Postmortem Evaluation of Reintroduced Migratory Whooping Cranes in Eastern North America. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 45(1): 29-40.

Cronin, T., M. Kinloch, G. Olsen. 2005. Head-bobbing behavior in foraging whooping cranes favors visual fixation. Current Biology, 15(7): R243-R244.

Cronin, T., M. Kinloch, G. Olsen. 2007. Head-bobbing in walking whooping cranes (Grus americana) and sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Journal of Ornithology, 148(Suppl 2): S563-S569.

Doughty, R. 1989. Return of the Whooping Crane. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ellis, D., K. Clegg, J. Lewis, E. Spaulding. 1999. Golden Eagle Predation on Experimental Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. The Condor, 101(3): 664-666.

Forrester, D., J. Carpenter, D. Blankinship. 1978. Coccidia of Whooping Cranes. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 14: 24-27.

Hayes, M., A. Lacy, J. Barzen, S. Zimorski, K. Hall, K. Suzuki. 2007. An Unusual Journey of Non-migratory Whooping Cranes. Southeastern Naturalist, 6(3): 551-558.

Hughes, J. 2008. Cranes: A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis. Richmond Hill: Firefly Books.

Johnsgard, P. 1983. Cranes of the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kuyt, E. 1980. Clutch size, Hatching Success, and Survival of Whooping Crane Chicks, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Crane Research Around the World, 1980: 126-129.

Kuyt, E. 1993. Whooping Crane, Grus americana, Home Range and Breeding range expansion in Wood Buffalo National Park, 1970-1991. The Canadian Field-Naturalist, 107(1): 1-12.

Lewis, J. 1995. Whooping Crane Grus americana. The Birds of North America, 153: 1-28.

Nelson, J., D. Slack, G. Gee. 1996. Nutritional Value of Winter Foods for Whooping Cranes. The Wilson Bulletin, 108(4): 728-739.

Spalding, M., M. Folk, S. Nesbitt, M. Folk, R. Kiltie. 2009. Environmental Correlates of Reproductive Success for Introduced Resident whooping Cranes in Florida. Waterbirds, 32(4): 538-547.

Timoney, K. 1999. The habitat of nesting whooping cranes. Biological Conservation, 89(2): 189-197.

Timoney, K., S. Zoltai, L. Goldsborough. 1997. Boreal Diatom ponds: A rare wetland associated with nesting Whooping Cranes. Wetlands, 17(4): 539-551.

United Nations Environment Programme-Wo, 2008. "Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada" (On-line). Accessed October 11, 2010 at http://www.eoearth.org/article/Wood_Buffalo_National_Park,_Canada.

Urbanek, R., L. Fondow, S. Zimorski, M. Wellington, M. Nipper. 2010. Winter release and management of reintroduced migratory Whooping Cranes Grus americana. Bird Conservation International, 20(1): 43-54.