Songbird Protection Coalition

The Crisis of Cranes and the Endangered Whooping Crane

The history of cranes is heavily laced with cruelty and indifference.  Since human interests became a dominant ecological process, other species have inevitably succumbed to our extravagances and desires.  Sadly, the presence of a single species - home sapiens - has directly and indirectly threatened the survival of the sandhill crane and the endangered whooping crane.  Both species have suffered significant reductions in their geographic distributions and population numbers at the single hand of man.

​The Eastern Population (EP) of sandhill cranes (Grus Canadensis) has been in recovery after approaching near extirpation in the late 1800s (Walkinshaw 1949, 1973; Leopold 1949).  A population bottleneck crisis in the early 1900s reduced the EP to fewer than 50 breeding pairs in the Great Lakes Region of Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario (US Fish and Wildlife Service, et al.).

The whooping crane (Grus americana), the tallest bird in North America, is also one of the rarest birds in North America and is listed as an endangered species.  In 1941, the total whooping crane population reached a historic low of just 16 birds - 14 adults and two young (multiples sources).  ​​

​In 2015, a rare sighting of a whooping crane occurred in southwest Michigan.  Giving hope that this endangered species can someday come back to Michigan to breed.

2017 population estimates for the Eastern Population (EP) of whooping cranes revealed the current maximum population size is 97 (44 Female, 51 Male, 2 Undetermined).  This does not include 2017 wild-hatched chicks.  As of June, at least 84 Whooping Cranes have been confirmed in Wisconsin, 2 in Illinois, 1 in Iowa, 2 in North Dakota, and 1 in Kentucky.  The remaining birds’ locations have not been reported as of May 2017.  See the individual list of whooping cranes here

Just as this historic breeding season (2017) for whooping cranes is celebrated, the northern most breeding states of the EP are now considering recreational hunting seasons on sandhill cranes for the first time in more than 100 years.

​Documented accidental and deliberate shootings of endangered whooping cranes by hunters are on record since before 1943 and continue to this day.  Whooping cranes often closely associate with sandhill cranes and biologists note hunting as a threat to the successful reintroduction of the whooping crane, especially into the EP range (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, US Fish and wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service).  Additionally, there is potential for loss of current habitat use by whooping cranes if hunting is introduced within the northern most breeding range of the EP (Richard Urbanek pers comm.). 

An untold number of whooping cranes have been killed by hunters unable to correctly distinguish the between the two species.  This small and young population is highly vulnerable genetically to any deaths of adult breeding birds and rusty colored juveniles - who are almost indistinguishable from sandhill cranes - on their first migration south.  And because of their endangered status, few sportsmen are willing to report even an unintentional kill. 

The International Crane Foundation states: "A Sandhill Crane hunting season would increase the risk of the accidental shooting of Whooping Cranes and require extensive effort to avoid these risks. Since the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership established the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes in 2001, over 10 Whooping Crane shootings have occurred in the population, accounting for over 20% of the population’s mortality.

Despite protection under the Endangered Species Act, whooping cranes continue to die by the recreational hunters gun, particularly during sandhill crane hunting season."

Sources, including but not limited to: Ad Hoc Eastern Population Sandhill Crane Committee, International Crane Foundation, Cranes: A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, National Audubon Society.