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The Whooping Crane
Nature Bulletin No. 714   April 20, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

Somewhere, perhaps in the Okefenokee or another remnant of the primeval swamps in our southern states, there may be a pair of the giant ivory-billed woodpeckers. If not, they have become extinct and the Whooping Crane is now the rarest of all North American birds.

The California condor has the greatest wingspread and it, too, is dangerously near extinction. The trumpeter swan is the heaviest but that huge waterfowl, which had been dwindling rapidly in numbers, is making a strong comeback since the establishment of suitable refuges in four northwestern states. The whooping crane is the tallest - with the body and long neck erect it is almost as tall as a man. Stalking through a marsh on stilt-like legs, it is also the most majestic and stately.

The plumage of an adult whooper, male or female -- except for the conspicuous black wing tips, and on the head -- is satiny white. Across each cheek, below the cold yellow eye, is a black mustache of bristle- like feathers. Otherwise the head is bare, with a reddish warty skin that is carmine on the crown. The heavy spear-shaped beak is mostly olive green. The long legs and huge feet are black.

The whooping crane was so-named because of its sonorous trumpeting unlike any other bird calls: "Ker-loo ! Ker-lee-oo ! " -- bugle-like notes that may be heard for miles. Their volume and resonance are probably due to its extraordinary windpipe which, in an adult, is about five feet long, with 28 inches or more coiled in the keel of the breastbone.

Whooping cranes apparently mate for life and each spring a pair builds a nest which is a crude platform of rushes, cattails and other aquatic vegetation projecting a foot or so above the water in a swamp. On it she usually lays two big eggs, buff or olive colored and blotched with brown. The parents take turns at incubating them. When they hatch, the young are covered with brownish down and within a few hours are running nimbly after their mother. As they mature, young whoopers acquire spots and blotches of white but do not become fully adult and pure white until their third summer.

There were probably never more than about 1500 whoopers at any time, despite early reports of vast flocks by people who apparently confused them with the somewhat smaller and slaty-gray sandhill cranes. Originally they nested in marshes of the prairie provinces in Canada, and the prairies of North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and central Illinois. After 1922 nobody knew where they nested until 1955, as related in our Bulletin No. 510 about cranes, when they were discovered in the Woods Buffalo Park, a vast wilderness area in northern Canada.

Originally they wintered mostly along the coastal lagoons of Texas and Louisiana, on the grasslands of Texas and Mexico, and sometimes on our Atlantic coast from Florida northward.

Between 1860 and 1920, slaughtered by hunters, and because their traditional nesting and wintering grounds were destroyed by drainage, agricultural and industrial developments, they almost disappeared. What saved them was the establishment, in 1937, of the 47,000 acre Arkansas Wildlife Refuge on a peninsula near Corpus Christi, for wintering grounds.

At that time only 19 were wintering there and 11 more in Louisiana. In 1941 there were 21 there and one in Louisiana. Now there are 42 wild ones, and, in the New Orleans zoo, a captive pair with four offspring.

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