Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
The whooping crane is found in extremely limited locations in Canada and the U.S. and completes a long migration.

Did you know?

A whooping crane’s method of flying is so energy-efficient that it can easily go for 10 hours at a time and cover distances of up to 750 kilometres.

Scientific name: Grus americana
Average weight: 7.5 kg (male)
6.4 kg (female)
Average length: 1.2 m–1.4 m
Average wingspan: 2.2 m
Average lifespan: 22–24 years (up to 30 years)
The stately whooping crane walks through a marshland.

Canadian Geographic articles

North America’s whooping crane

By Howard Collins
January 1969

Scarcely seen in our skies anymore, the whooping crane has long been a source of both fascination and concern for biologists.

The large birds are approximately 1.5 metres tall and are recognizable for their black and white plumage and red caps. Wintering in the southern United States, the cranes migrate north to Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories to breed and hatch chicks.

At the time the birds were first described, by John James Audubon, the population was estimated to already be fairly low — 1,300 in total. But with hunting and egg thievery — each egg went for two dollars apiece — the whooping crane dropped to even lower numbers. By the early 20th century, only 25 to 30 still existed, and leading zoologists were predicting that the whooping crane would be the first North American animal to become extinct in the 1900s.

However, wild animals are better survivors than we give them credit for, and a small number of whoopers were discovered in Texas and Louisiana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared 47,000 acres surrounding the wintering site in Texas a reserve, and biologists finally had an opportunity to study the birds up close. However, once the cranes left the protected area, there was no way to track them or even figure out where they went.

After an extensive search for nesting grounds, a few whoopers were finally spotted in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, allowing the researchers to once more keep an eye on their beloved birds. Conservationists adopted a policy of taking a few eggs each season to be raised in captivity, to ensure the survival of the birds. Despite this measure and extensive protection, the birds still remained at risk. 

Breeding whoopers at the Calgary Zoo

By John Gilmore
July/August 1993

Giving whooping cranes a much need helping hand, the Calgary Zoo started a breeding program in 1993.

The Zoo’s program is the first and only Canadian whooping crane captive breeding centre — there are two other centers that raise the birds: Patuxent Wildlife Research Centre in Maryland and the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Wisconsin. At the time the Calgary breeding program started up, there were only 250 cranes in the entirety of North America and only 145 were wild.

At the time this article was written, zoologists were unsure as to how they were going to reintroduce the cranes back into their native habitat. Currently, after hatching, the birds are shipped to Maryland, where they imprint on what is basically a large sock puppet and learn survival skills. Eventually, they embark on their annual migration, following ultra-light aircraft, in a technique pioneered with Canadian geese (by artist and conservationist Bill Lishman, also a Canadian).

Presently, the whooping crane estimate sits at about 263 – wild, that is.

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