The whooping crane (Grus americana) is an endangered bird species and one of the rarest birds in North America. It is one of two crane species found on the continent and the tallest bird species on the continent, standing at up to five feet (1.5 m) in height. Once abundant throughout North America, the whooping crane population nearly faced extinction in 1937 when the number of individuals dropped to only fifteen birds. Fortunately, dedicated conservation efforts in Canada and the United States, including captive breeding, wetland management, have led a slow but promising recovery. However, the survival of these majestic birds remains threatened by coastal and marine pollution, illegal hunting, and the ongoing depletion of their crucial wetlands habitats.
As of January 2023, the estimated global population of whooping cranes stands at 836 individuals. This count includes the self-sustaining Aransas-Wood Buffalo migratory flock (543 individuals), the Eastern migratory flock (76 individuals) that was established through successful captive breeding programs, the non-migratory Louisiana flock (77 individuals), and the non-migratory Florida population (6 individuals). Additionally, 134 cranes reside in captivity, such as the San Antonio Zoo.
Whooping cranes are recognized for their resonating call which can be heard for over long distances. Their plumage is predominantly snowy white, accentuated by black wing-tips, feet, and beak. Their cheeks and crown boast a vibrant red color. Juvenile whooping cranes display a mottled caramel head and neck, while adults have an impressive wing-span of up to seven feet (2.1 m). During flight, these graceful creatures extend their long necks and legs, creating a striking sight in the sky.
Whooping cranes breed in Wood Buffalo National Park (44,741 km2) in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The cranes embark on an annual migration spanning 2,400-miles (3,862 km) to reach their protected coastal wintering grounds, encompassing 115,324 acres (466.7 km2) at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Their arrival commences in late October, and by mid-April, they begin their journey back to Canada. Each crane family claims an expansive territory of approximately one square mile (2.6 km2), defending it against predators and rival cranes. Typically, crane pairs lay two eggs, although only one chick usually survives. Every winter, the whooping cranes undertake their migration from Canada back to Texas.
The whooping crane’s diet primarily consists of blue crabs, clams, snails, and other small marine creatures. They supplement their nourishment with acorns, berries, insects, and crayfish.
The coastal marshes of Texas are truly blessed to host such a rare and beautiful bird as the whooping crane each year. Although you may occasionally catch a glimpse of these magnificent birds from the observation tower or other areas of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the best way to view them is by boat. Numerous coastal birding tours, operating out of Rockport, offer fantastic opportunities to observe whooping cranes and a variety of other bird species.