Scientific Name: Grus americana
Description: One of the rarest North American birds, and also one of the largest and most magnificent. Once fairly widespread on the northern prairies, it was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1940s, but strict protection has brought the wild population back to well over one hundred. The flock that winters on the central Texas coast flies 2400 miles north to nest in Wood Buffalo National Park in central Canada; this remote breeding area was not discovered until 1954.
Habitat: Muskeg (summer); prairie pools, marshes. Current breeding habitat is in remote northern forest, in areas of muskeg (swampy coniferous woods with numerous lakes and ponds). Formerly also nested in prairie marshes. Winters in coastal marsh, where adult pairs and families defend territories, returning to same territory each winter.
Feeding Behavior: Forages mostly by standing still or walking very slowly in shallow water, waiting for fish to swim near, then striking with rapid thrust of bill. Also forages on shore, from floating objects, and in grassland. May hunt by day or night.
Diet: Omnivorous. In winter, eats insects, shrimp, crabs, clams, snails, frogs, snakes, small fish, seeds, acorns, roots, berries. Summer diet not well known, probably a similarly wide variety of animal and plant matter.
Eggs: 2, sometimes 1 or 3. Olive-buff, spotted with dark brown. Incubation is by both sexes, 29-31 days; female usually incubates at night. Young: Downy young leave nest within a few hours after hatching. Both parents feed young. Two eggs typically hatch, but very rarely or never does more than one young bird survive. Young is able to fly at about 3 months after hatching.
Nesting: In courtship, pairs "dance," leaping into air repeatedly with flapping wings, bills pointed upward, giving bugling calls; dance has a dignified look. Other displays include bowing, tossing tufts of grass in the air, and loud trumpeting or "whooping" calls. Nest site is on ground, typically on marshy island in lake or pond. Nest (built by both sexes) is a large mound of grass, weeds, mud, with depression at center.
Young: Downy young leave nest within a few hours after hatching. Both parents feed young. Two eggs typically hatch, but very rarely or never does more than one young bird survive. Young is able to fly at about 3 months after hatching.
Conservation Status: Endangered. Whoopers once nested on the northern prairies south to present-day Iowa and Illinois, but they disappeared as settlers moved in. As recently as 1912, about 90 birds wintered at various points in coastal Texas and Louisiana, and there was a nonmigratory population in southwestern Louisiana as well. By 1941 the Texas wintering flock was down to only 15 birds (another six were still resident in Louisiana, but that flock soon dwindled away). After 1941, numbers very gradually rose again, helped by protection on the wintering grounds and public education against shooting; by the mid-1990s, the Texas wintering flock approached 150. Attempts to start a new flock farther west (by putting Whooper eggs under Sandhill Cranes in Idaho) failed, but in the 1990s a new project aimed to start a nonmigratory flock in Florida, using birds raised in captivity. Most recently, an ambitious project has established a new flock that summers in Wisconsin, with young birds raised and then trained to follow an ultralight aircraft to Florida for their first southward migration.
Notes: Images captured at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.