Whooping Cranes are the tallest birds in North America at five feet. And, they are among the most endangered, with fewer than 500 remaining in the wild. Most breed in western Canada and the upper mid-western US. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is coordinating efforts to establish a wild migratory flock of whooping cranes in the eastern United States. We are proud that St. Marks NWR is a significant part of that effort.
Since January 2009, the Refuge has served as a winter home of young endangered cranes. Operation Migration staff, dressed in crane costumes, serve as surrogate parents and teach captive-hatched and imprinted whooping crane chicks to follow ultra-light aircraft on a journey of over 1,200 miles from central Wisconsin to Florida.
Prior to 2009, all ultra-light led cranes wintered at the Chassahowitzka NWR, located near Crystal River, Florida. After a disastrous storm killed most of the young whooping cranes in 2007, the decision was made to split the flock into two groups. Now, so long as enough eggs are available, some juveniles are led to St. Marks and others to Chass. A total of 27 chicks over the past few years have spent their first winter growing into young adults on the St. Marks NWR. You can learn more about each crane chick, including their current status, from Journey North.
SMRA celebrates the arrival of the cranes and ultra-lights with a flyover of the town of St. Marks. The event is a thrilling opportunity for the public to see the cranes and ultra-light aircraft in flight before they head to the nearby Refuge. After being checked by a veterinarian, and banded and fitted with tracking devices, the young cranes are free to spend their first winter exploring the Refuge, foraging for crabs and other delicacies. They roost in a large open pen that was constructed by volunteers. Pensite construction was financed, in part, by numerous donors, including children from several local schools who participated in Coins-for-Cranes fundraisers.
The pen site is located on a secluded part of the Refuge that is not accessible to visitors. The crane caretakers wear costumes to disguise their human appearance to protect the whooping cranes by keeping them wild, and wary of humans. In the spring, on a schedule known only to themselves, the young cranes take flight and, having learned their migration path, return to Wisconsin without human assistance. In the fall, Operation Migration's ultra-light aircraft lead a new flock of youngsters to Florida, while the older birds find their way south on their own.
Whooping cranes are quite vocal. Click below to hear their two most common calls:
Unison (334Kb wav) Flight (223Kb wav)
Not suprisingly, after the long migration of these juveniles to St Marks, the Refuge's new visitors are ready for seafood, relaxation, and celebration of their success. In this rare recording of newly-arrived whooping crane "teenagers", made shortly after sundown by Hilda Lamas and Chris "Urbano B" Dominguez, a deeper insight into the private lives of whooping cranes can be acquired.
The Whoop (6.7Mb mp3)
Because these whooping cranes have been raised in a strict isolation rearing protocol, they have a natural fear of humans and human environs. Retaining that fear of humans will help them survive. Adult whooping cranes have occasionally been observed on or in the vicinity of the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge. In the event you are fortunate enough to encounter a whooping crane here or elsewhere in the wild, please observe this protocol to ensure their continued wild and natural behavior:
Do not approach birds on foot within 600 feet. Do not approach in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet. Try to remain in your vehicle. Please remain concealed and do not speak so loudly that the birds can hear you.
Whooping cranes are protected under the Federal Endangered Species and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts, as well as state wildlife laws. Disturbing, harassing or killing whooping cranes or other non-game wildlife is a crime, punishable by jail time, fines, and other penalties. Help save the whooping crane. Report suspected illegal activity. Contact your local law enforcement or natural resource agency.
Learn more about efforts to save endangered whooping cranes by visiting these websites:
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership
Operation Migration, Inc.
International Crane Foundation