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Whooping Cranes can be identified in flight by the black wing tips and white plumage. (Photo by Steve Hillebrand - USFWS)

Whooping Cranes can be identified in flight by the black wing tips and white plumage. (Photo by Steve Hillebrand – USFWS)

This season’s first whooping cranes arrived in Oklahoma the day before Halloween. Each fall, these birds pass through Oklahoma while on their nearly 2,500-mile journey from their nesting grounds in northern Canada to their wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast of Texas, says the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC).

“The window of time between the 20th of October and the 10th of November typically provides the best opportunity to see whooping cranes in Oklahoma,” said Mark Howery, wildlife diversity biologist for the ODWC. “This fall, approximately 300 whooping cranes are expected to make the southward migration flight, and all of them will pass through central and western Oklahoma.”

In an effort to better understand the cranes’ migration paths and the habitats that are important, the ODWC annually works with the other member agencies of the Central Flyway Council to track the birds as they pass through the United States. The ODWC is asking citizens to report any whooping crane sightings again this year.

“We are interested in all whooping crane reports,” Howery said, “but we are especially interested in reports of banded birds.” A small percentage of the population is banded, and two years ago a landowner in Canadian County photographed six adult whooping cranes on one of her ponds, including one with colored leg bands. These bands had been placed on the bird in 1988 and indicated that it was at least 25 years old!

Whooping cranes have always been uncommon. But 200 years ago, they were more widespread and 10,000 or more cranes were thought to occupy the central portion of North America. Their decline was due largely to the loss of wetland habitat in both the nesting and wintering ranges, and unregulated market hunting in the 1800s before the enactment of wildlife conservation laws. By 1941, the whooping crane population had been reduced to a mere 15 to 20 birds. Conservation measures such as the protection of the cranes’ breeding and wintering habitats have helped bring about a slow yet steady increase in the population.

“Today, there are just over 300 cranes in the wild,” Howery said. “The Canadian Wildlife Service monitors whooping crane nesting success each summer and develops an overall population estimate. During the winter months, biologists at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast conduct monthly aerial flights to monitor the birds.”

The Canadian Wildlife Service conducted aerial flights to locate and monitor whooping crane nests in and surrounding Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta. They located a record 82 nests, from which 32 chicks were successfully fledged.

Matt Fullerton, endangered species biologist for the ODWC urges the public to aid in monitoring efforts by reporting any whooping cranes they observe.”Whooping cranes are large white birds that are nearly 5 feet tall and have a wingspan of over 7 feet. In flight, their long legs trail behind the body, and their long necks are stretched out straight (not in an “S” shape). Their wings are white with black tips on the outermost feathers. They typically migrate during the daylight hours and travel in small groups of two to eight birds. They usually are seen around wetlands, shallow lakes and rivers but are sometimes observed in grain fields with sandhill cranes,” Fullerton explained.

Should you see a whooping crane, please take note of the number of birds, the time, date, location and the habitat in the area. Report your sighting to Howery by calling (405) 990-7259 or e-mail mark.howery@odwc.ok.gov. Fullerton can be reached at (580) 571-5820 or by e-mail at matthew.fullerton@odwc.ok.gov. Learn more about whooping cranes here.