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Whooping Cranes

The whooping crane (Grus americana) is a federal and state-endangered species. It is the tallest bird in North America.

General Characteristics

Physical Characteristics
  • Bright white plumage with crimson cap.
  • whooping cranesLong necks and long black legs.
  • Stout straight black bill.
  • Average weight is 15 pounds.
  • Can reach up to 5 feet tall.
  • Its trachea is 5 feet long, coiling into its sternum allowing for these cranes to give loud calls.
Behavioral Characteristics
  • Slow-moving birds that browse for food.
  • Occur in small flocks (2-6 birds) or in singles.
  • Courtship dances involve leaping, kicking, head-pumping and wing-sweeping.

Distribution and Abundance

Whooping cranes observed in Indiana are the result of a restoration effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of governmental agencies and private organizations to establish a migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern United States. Since 2001, captive-bred whooping cranes have been taught to follow ultralight aircraft to teach them a migration route from central Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Until 2008, this route took them through Indiana, and free-flying birds regularly stop in Indiana during the fall and spring seasons. Other birds have been released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds are expected to learn the migration route. Once led south, the cranes are able to migrate on their own, without assistance, in following years.
Report Whooping Crane sightings here

In the spring and fall, staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make both along the way and on their summering and wintering grounds. All birds have unique combinations of colored bands as well as a radio transmitter. Not all transmitters are functional, however, so public sightings of whooping cranes are of great help in tracking these birds. If someone observes a whooping crane in Indiana, report them at www.savingcranes.org/report-whooping-crane.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. In 2008, there were only about 525 birds in existence, 375 of them in the wild. Aside from the 68 birds reintroduced by WCEP, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 35 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.

Food Habits

Whopping cranes feed on:

  • Crabs.
  • Clams.
  • Frogs.
  • Aquatic plants.
  • Insects.
  • Seeds.
  • Berries.
  • Snakes.


Whooping cranes, and all other nongame wildlife, are researched and managed by the Indiana DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife nongame staff. All projects are funded through donations to the Nongame Fund. The only self-sustaining population of Whooping Cranes is a flock that breeds in Canada and over-winters in Texas. Three reintroduced populations exist with the help of captive breeding programs as described above. 

Anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild should give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view whooping cranes.

For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at www.bringbackthecranes.org.