We were recently blessed with a brief visit from “#5-10,” one of just 667 Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) existing in the wild. On March 16th, a co-worker and I were driving back to campus after working on the wetland restoration on 9th road…
…We looked out and observed the bright white 5-ft tall federally-endangered bird on “Mt. Baldy,” the grassy knoll that rises to the northeast of Moontree Studios.
Scientists attach uniquely colored leg bands to each of these birds (and many other species), allowing them to gather data from citizen photographers across the country. Telephoto lenses allowed myself and another co-worker to get identifying photos, which I submitted to International Crane Foundation along with data from our observation. It turns out that “#5-10” is an 10 year-old, captive-raised female that recently overwintered in Tennessee and is currently en route to her breeding grounds in Wisconsin (click here to read her full biography). You can see a map of all their recently reported sightings here.
#5-10 was associating with a flock of about 12-20 Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), with whom Whooping Cranes will frequently migrate and associate. “Whoopers” are slightly larger and are primarily white, except for their black wing tips, which are exposed during flight. It makes for quite the sight!
These are the only two species from the Crane family (Gruidae) that live in the Americas. Although they are quite visibly simpatico, their evolutionary lineage split about 11 million years ago. According to a 2010 genetic study, our Whooping Crane is more closely related to the Tibetan Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) than it is to the Sandhill.1
The restoration of wetlands and decades of tireless work from federally-funded scientists, volunteers, and advocates have made recovery of this species a possibility. There are only 85 of these birds in the eastern migratory population, which breed in Wisconsin and overwinter in the Southeast. This population (including #5-10) was taught to migrate by following a handler in an ultralight airplane.
After millions of years of evolution and decades of captive-breeding and assisted migration efforts, the loss of this species would be an unconscionable act of negligence. At least 5 have been illegally killed in Indiana alone. Only vigilant, persistent protection in the coming decades will allow this remarkable creature to safely come back from the brink of extinction.
#5-10 stuck around the property for about four days, foraging in the alfalfa and corn fields and (I imagine) roosting overnight in the wetlands with the Sandhills. We have been trying to keep quiet on this until we were reasonably certain it had continued its migration. She has yet to raise a chick that survived long enough to make the fall migration with her. Here’s hoping 2021 is her year!
1) Krajewski, Carey & Sipiorski, Justin & Anderson, Frank. (2010). Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequences and the Phylogeny of Cranes (Gruiformes: Gruidae). The Auk. 127. 440-452. 10.1525/auk.2009.09045.
US Fish and Wildlife Fact Sheet