Whooping cranes, one of North America’s most endangered birds, have started their spring migration and are making their way through North Dakota. Anyone seeing these rare birds is asked to report sightings so the birds can be tracked.
Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said it can be surprisingly easy for people to mistake other white birds – snow geese, pelicans, swans and egrets – for whooping cranes.
“But the most common mistake 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,” Szymanski said.
Whooping cranes stand about five feet tall and have a wingspan of about seven feet. They are 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 2-3 birds, and may be associated with sandhill cranes.
Anyone sighting whoopers should not disturb them, but record the date, time, location, and the birds’ activity. Observers should also look closely for and report colored bands which may occur on one or both legs. Young whooping cranes were marked during 1975-1988 with colored leg bands to help determine their identity.
Whooping crane sightings should be reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge office at Long Lake at (701) 387-4397, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s main office in Bismarck at (701) 328-6300, or to local game wardens around 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.