Whooping cranes, among the rarest species in the world, are extending their range into North Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports. Observers report—and U.S. Fish and Wildlife confirms— a pair of the endangered birds are wintering in western North Carolina. This marks the first time whooping cranes have been observed wintering in the state.
Whooping crane numbers dropped to merely 16 birds in 1941. That number has expanded to approximately 550 birds in the wild today.
In addition to being extremely rare, whooping cranes are striking in appearance. Adult birds stand five feet tall with striking white and black plumage.
First Times as a Couple
Eva Szyszkoski, tracking field manager for the International Crane Foundation, said this is the first time the male and female crane wintering in North Carolina have been spotted together as a couple. She reports there has been plenty of speculation among bird enthusiasts about whether the pair will nest.
Szyszkoski says the female is less than two years old, which is considered too young to lay eggs. If the pair stays together, however, the female could lay eggs as early as next year.
“The older birds that have nested before generally stay together, but because this pair has been together only a short time, they haven’t formed a close enough bond to determine if they will nest yet,” she observed.
Good Nesting Grounds
Gary Peeples, education and outreach specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Asheville, North Carolina, says this pair of birds resulted from an effort to establish a flock of migrating cranes in the eastern United States. The project is a collaboration among private, state, and federal organizations known as the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).
There is already a western flock that migrates between the Great Plains in the summer and Texas in the winter. The eastern flock migrates between the Great Lakes region in the summer and the southeastern United States in the winter.
The North Carolina pair is from the eastern flock, consisting of more than 100 birds, which ranges into Georgia and eastern Tennessee. That means they’re not too far from their flock, says Peeples.
“These two are near water—they’re using an old agricultural field, so they’re getting their needs met. It’s January, so it’s a little early to tell if they are going to stay or return next year, but we’re hopeful. We think western North Carolina has everything they need,” Peeples observed.
Cranes Need Space
One question federal Fish and Wildlife agents wrestle with is whether to publicize the arrival of rare species.
“A lot of people want to see rare species in the wild, but these birds are so rare that we don’t want a lot of pressure from spectators,” Peeples explained. However, “once the birding community finds out, word gets out and pretty much everyone knows about it at that point.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.