Portfolio Project: Saving the Whooping Crane

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Portfolio Project

Saving the Whooping Crane

BIO121 Environmental Conservation

Colorado State University Global



The Grus americana, more commonly known as the Whooping Crane is North America’s tallest bird reaching about five feet in height, with a wingspan reaching over seven feet (Allaboutbirds.org). As full grown adults, both males and females can weigh up to about 16lbs. Adults have bright white feathers that cover the majority of their bodies, black wing tips, red accents on the tops of their heads and long black legs (Allaboutbirds.org).

The Whooping Crane gets its name from the whooping sound it makes. The call of the Whooping Crane can actually be heard several miles away (Kaufman, 2020). They have been observed expressing what is called a guard call which is meant to warn their partner about possible dangers. Additionally, pairs will often call in unison when they wake in the morning, after courting and when they are defending their territory (Kaufman, 2020).

Whooping Cranes will begin to look for a mate while they are in their sub-adult phase. They perform elaborate dances while flapping their wings and calling out to a potential mate. Bonded pairs will mate for life, and can often be seen in family groups (Oldham, 2018). Cranes can be very territorial and pairs will defend their territories together, sometimes accompanied by their young (Oldham, 2018).


Currently, the Whooping Cranes nesting ground is located in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, Canada and breeding pairs will spend about two weeks every year “wintering” along the Gulf coast in Texas and the surrounding area (Oldham, 2018). They will breed in prairie wetlands in small, shallow ponds and lakes, marshes and mudflats (Oldham, 2018). Areas of great importance to the species include freshwater lakes, marshes and pools, as well as brackish coastal waters, saline lagoons and marine lakes (BirdLife International, 2016).


Whooping Cranes are omnivores, but primarily consume other animals (Archibald & Meine, 1996). While they are wintering in Texas, they will feed on the local crustaceans, eels, small reptiles, mollusks, and crayfish. Throughout the year their diets also consist of small rodents and birds, insects, clams, berries, waste grain and snails (Urbanek & Lewis, 2020). Although the creature has a varied diet, it has been reported that their primary food source is the blue crab, “constituting up to 90 percent of their energy intake” (Chapman & Lutterschmidt, 2016).

Human Interactions

Prior to the European settlement in the United States, it is estimated that Whooping Cranes numbers well over 10,000 (Oldhan, 2018). By the 1940’s the population of the species had plummeted to about 20 birds (Quivira, 2020). This decline was spurred primarily by hunting and egg collecting as well as through habitat destruction (National Geographic, 2018).

Today, conservation efforts are being made to protect the remaining population and habitat. Some of these efforts include removing a single egg from a nest and raising that individual in a captive setting (Oldhan, 2018).



According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, the Whooping Cranes detrimental decline has pushed the species into the Endangered category. The status of Endangered is based on the “extremely small population” (BirdLife International, 2016). Conservation efforts have improved over the years with increases in natural wild populations and in the establishment of reintroductions from captivity. The improvements have been so positive that it is possible that in the near future the “species may merit downlisting to Vulnerable” (BirdLife International, 2016).

It goes without saying that it is highly illegal to capture or own a crane in any capacity. While they are still listed as Endangered, every individual bird is important for their continued contribution to their survival (Oldhan, 2018).



Besides the threats that they face from humans, Whooping Cranes and their nests are subject to a wide variety of natural predators. In the U.S., black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, red foxes and even eagles have been known to prey on the large bird (Urbanek & Lewis, 2020). Adult cranes can usually deter attacks from medium size predators and have even been known to ward off attacks from wolves. In Florida and Texas, areas where they winter, bobcats have become the primary threat and their overpopulation has been caused by the decrease in larger predators that used to prey on bobcats (Keneagy, 2018).


Climate change has also paid its toll on these creatures. Severe storms, which frequently hit the Gulf coast, can cause rising pond and lake levels as well as flooding. This kind of weather primarily threatens their nesting grounds. When water levels become too high, the eggs can be washed away or submerged under cold waters, preventing incubation by their parents. On the opposite side of the spectrum, extreme droughts also cause increases in mortality. Droughts cause their nesting and feeding grounds to dry up. When this happens, a domino effect begins; marsh, ponds and shallow lakes dry up killing the food sources that lived in those waters; the lack of water means fewer crane food sources in search of water in their feeding grounds; the cranes are unable to find sustainable food and starve to death.

Diseases, Parasites and Toxins

Like all animals, Whooping Cranes are susceptible to a number of viruses and diseases. Cranes can become infected with the West Nile virus, the coccidia parasite, avian influenza and tuberculosis and even heart disease (Stehn & Haralson-Strobel, 2014). Additionally, man made toxins and foreign chemicals from pesticides that spill or leach into the waters they live in can cause serious harm, even to the eggs (BirdLife International, 2016).


Humans are the biggest threat of all as we continue to destroy and alter the environments that they depend on. Collisions with power lines have been known to cause serious injury and death. Other collisions, such as with aircraft, wind turbines, fences and vehicles, have all contributed to their mortality rates (Urbanek & Lewis, 2020). Reports over the years have caused conservationists to urge for alternate solutions to reduce these issues. A viable solution that came out of it was power line markers; the birds are able to spot the markers and reroute (Urbanek & Lewis, 2020).

The impact of human settlements has dramatically changed and reduced not just the Whooping Cranes nesting and feeding grounds, but also their migratory corridor from Canada to Texas and Florida. Cranes were once known to use a corridor that spanned the distance between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, from the Gulf of Mexico to the northernmost border of Alberta, Canada. Most of that land has been turned into large cities and agricultural ranges. Humans have drained lakes and diverted rivers, destroyed marshlands, built fences and plowed away stopover points along their ancestral path (Urbanek & Lewis, 2020). Urbanek and Lewis (2020) report that more than 70% of the native grasslands and wetlands used by Whooping Cranes for feeding have been lost to human activities.


Predatory Species Management

Within the last two decades or so, conservationists were able to create a new migratory path travelled by new flocks from Michigan to Florida. This has been a tremendous feat, raising cranes with puppets from the moment they hatch to teaching them to feed in the wild and fly this path. Nothing this great could last very long though, and reports of crane deaths in Florida began to hit the news. Bobcats have increased in population in Florida due to the lack of species that prey on bobcats (Orlando Sentinel, 2018).

The bobcats pose the biggest threat to eggs, hatchling, and fledgling; stalking them at night the bobcats have ambushed a great many of them (Orlando Sentinel, 2018). A proposed conservation action to benefit the Whooping Cranes would be the management of the bobcat populations. The bobcats are lacking a dominant predator and have turned into basically an invasive species with little control. Whether it comes in the form of relocation or hunting, the number of bobcats in the new nesting grounds of Florida needs to be controlled.

Blue Crab Farming

Farming blue crabs is not a new concept, but the research out there doesn’t really link the farming of crabs with conservation efforts for Whooping Cranes. The blue crab is the primary source of energy for the Whooping Crane and many other cranes as well (Chapman & Lutterschmidt, 2016). They can be found in the nesting grounds in Canada and their wintering grounds in Texas. Texas and Canada both experience drought which has a negative effect on them and, in turn, the Whooping Cranes.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s Blue Crab Hatchery has been working since the early 2000’s to make farming a reality, and they have been successful (Waycott, 2019). In addition to being a supportive solution to the conservation of Whooping Cranes, farming blue crabs is a sustainable alternative for a variety of situations. The primary goal of USM’s hatchery is to “support the livelihoods of blue crab fishermen in Mississippi” (Waycott, 2019). Blue crabs can reproduce in great quantities, and a partnership between crane conservationists and blue crab hatcheries could give the Whooping Crane a great chance.


When it comes to what I can actually do to help this beautiful bird, I want to be realistic. I work full time in law enforcement, I go to school full time and I provide part time care to my mother who was recently diagnosed with a rare cancer. My plate is a bit overloaded. So when I think about what I can do to help, there is really only one option that comes to mind: Charity.

Over the last 7 weeks I have visited the International Crane Foundations website more than any other. I have learned what they are doing to help, who they partner with, the methods they use for reintroduction and the lengths they have gone to keep their programs going. Every year I give a minimum of $1000 to charity; this year I have decided I will donate that money to them. What they are doing is not easy nor is it cheap but it is a realistic way that I can help.

In addition to this, I have also decided to adopt a crane (see appendix B). For the price of $100, the adoption of a crane helps the foundation provide the cranes with food and water as well as veterinary care for one year. This is a small price to pay for the amount of good it will do. I have asked that my family and friends also adopt a crane and to support this foundation.

Appendix A

Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Smith,

Director of North American Programs for the International Crane Foundation

Appendix B

While doing research, I learned that the Whooping Cranes migratory path used to span the distance from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. It is incredibly rare to see one in Colorado now. This literally brought me to tears, adopting a crane is the least I can do.


AllAboutBirds.org. (n.d.). Whooping Crane Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Whooping_Crane/id

Archibald, G., & Meine, C. (1996). The cranes: Status survey and conservation action plan. Gland: IUCN.

BirdLife International. (2016, October 01). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22692156/155547970

Chapman, B. R., &; Lutterschmidt, W. I. (2019). Texans on the brink: Threatened and endangered animals. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press.

National Geographic. (2018, September 24). Whooping Crane. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/w/whooping-crane/

Kaufman, K. (2020, March 12). Whooping Crane. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/whooping-crane

Keneagy, B. (2018, October 06). BOBCATS THIN FLOCK OF ENDANGERED WHOOPING CRANES. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1993-07-16-9307160675-story.html

Oldham, C. (2018, October 24). Whooping Crane – Description, Habitat, Image, Diet, and Interesting Facts. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://animals.net/whooping-crane/

Orlando Sentinel. (2018, October 06). BOBCAT’S A SUSPECT AFTER 4 WHOOPING CRANES KILLED. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1993-02-25-9302250127-story.html

Quivira. (2020, February 13). Whooping Crane – Quivira – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Quivira/wildlife_and_habitat/whooping_crane.html

Stehn, T., & Haralson-Strobel, C. (2014). An Update on Mortality of Fledged Whooping Cranes in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo Population. In Proceedings of the North American Crane Workshop (pp. 43-50). Austwell, TX: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Urbanek, R., & Lewis, J. (2020, March 4). Whooping Crane Grus americana. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/whocra/cur/introduction

Waycott, B. (2019, July 15). Research project showing potential for farming Blue crab. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.aquaculturenorthamerica.com/research-project-showing-potential-for-farming-blue-crab-2383/

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