Seeing white cranes? No, you’re not crazy. There have been a couple of sightings of a large white crane flying with smaller sandhill cranes. What people have been seeing is a misplaced whooping crane.
These are larger cranes that are almost entirely white except for some red and black on their heads and black wingtips. One problem….there are between 400 and 500 whooping cranes in existence today, according to 2008-2009 information.
There is only one flock of whooping cranes that are naturally wild. That flock breeds at the Wood Buffalo National Park, in Canada, and winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, in Texas. In 1942 whooping cranes were the rarest animal in the country, numbering only 16 individuals. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s their numbers held at only 35. When the Federal Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, the whooping crane became the poster child of this new wildlife recovery effort. By 2006 the number of birds in the wild numbered only 200.
(Adult and young whooping crane - (c) International Crane Foundation)
Since 1975 several organizations have been trying to increase the number of whooping cranes. Eggs were taken from the cranes at the Wood Buffalo National Park and taken to Gray’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in Idaho. The eggs were then raised by sandhill cranes. Because these cranes suffered high mortality rates the project was ended in 1989.
The idea of starting a second flock was not left behind though. Another program was started in the 1980’s by the U.S. and Canadian Whooping Crane Recovery Team. In 1993 they released 33 cranes, raised in captivity, at the Kissimmee Prairie in Florida. This established a non-migratory flock similar to the Louisiana flock that had existed in the past. In 2002 the flock had 86 birds, but by 2008-2009 had dropped to 29 birds.
In the late 1990’s an organization formed that would go even further. Made of many private, government and non-profit organizations, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), established a flock of migratory whooping cranes in Wisconsin. In 2008-2009 the newest flock had 106 birds.
(Dressed like a whooping crane to feed crames raised in captivity before their first migratory trip (c) International Crane Foundation)
The flock migrates from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, in Wisconsin, and flies 1200 miles to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. For the chick’s first migration they follow an ultralight aircraft. They return to Wisconsin on their own in the spring. And thanks to the WCEP there are 60 new birds in one new flock, however, the whooping crane remains the rarest bird in North America.
(Cranes following an ultralight aircraft to Florida for their first migratory trip - (c) International Crane Foundation)
As recently as October of this year one whooping crane was sighted near Munith (Jackson County). And according to Eva Szyszkoski, of the International Crane Foundation, “cranes have been spending summers in Michigan since 2008.”
If you are in Jackson County keep an eye out for this 5 foot tall beautiful white bird. After all, it is not every day that you see one of the rarest birds in North America!
(Baby whooping crane - (c) International Crane Foundation)