Every year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out a call this time of year for people to report sightings of whooping cranes as they make their way from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.
Aransas NWR sits along the Gulf of Mexico near Corpus Christi, Texas. From there it’s about 1,400 miles to central North Dakota, where these rare, large white birds are sometimes seen as they rest up for the rest of their journey.
Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada sits along the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, so the birds have another thousand miles to go once they leave North Dakota.
At their most dire situation in the 1940s, this population of birds that has migrated along the same route from wintering to nesting grounds and back for eons, was hovering near extinction at less than 20 remaining wild birds. Today, that same group of birds numbers around 500.
While not all of them fly over North Dakota or land here on their spring or fall migration, anyone who does get lucky enough to see them can chalk it up as a rare experience. As a biologist, I practice what I preach and don't intentionally go out looking for whooping cranes, but I do spend time outdoors at all times of year and have yet to see one on a random occasion.
But the Game and Fish Department does have a mounted specimen at its headquarters office in Bismarck, and it is indeed remarkable. It stands about 5 feet tall and if it had its wings outstretched, they would measure about 7 feet from tip to tip.
Adults whooping cranes are bright white with black wing tips, which are visible only when the wings are outspread. In flight, they extend their long necks straight forward, while their long, slender legs extend out behind the tail. Whooping cranes typically migrate singly, or in groups of two to three birds and may be associated with sandhill cranes.
Other white birds, such as snow geese, swans and egrets, are often mistaken for whooping cranes.
The most common misidentification is pelicans, because their wingspan is similar and they tuck their pouch in flight, leaving a silhouette similar to a crane when viewed from below.
Anyone sighting whoopers should not disturb them, but record the date, time, location and the birds' activity. Observers also should look closely for and report colored bands which may occur on one or both legs. Whooping cranes have been marked with colored leg bands to help determine their identity.
Whooping crane sightings should be reported to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices at Lostwood, (701) 848-2466, or Long Lake, (701) 387-4397, national wildlife refuges; the state Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, (701) 328-6300, or to local game wardens across the state.
Reports help biologists locate important whooping crane habitat areas, monitor marked birds, determine survival and population numbers and identify times and migration routes.