Whooping Cranes a Rare Sight in ND

Leier Doug
Doug Leier

By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept.

I’ve lived in North Dakota my entire life and worked for the state Game and Fish Department my entire full-time natural resources career. I’ve lived and worked near Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Moffit and Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge north of Stanley.


Those facts alone would make it seem like the odds would be in my favor of either professionally, or as a matter of chance, having seen a live whooping crane in the state. But I haven’t. At least not yet.


Even typing about it, I’m pretty comfortable accepting that the likelihood of seeing one of the most endangered of species is pretty marginal. But some lucky people do see them each spring and fall as they make their way through North Dakota on a migration pattern that takes them from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. That’s a distance of about 2,500 miles each way.


Every year the Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out a call for people to report their sightings of these striking white birds. At one time or another during both their spring and fall migrations, a fair number of the 300 or so birds in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population end up on the ground in North Dakota, according to Game and Fish migratory game bird management supervisor Mike Szymanski.


Whooping cranes typically migrate in pairs or trios and can be seen each spring on rare occasion due to their numbers moving through North Dakota. (NDG&F Photo)

Biologists receive several dozen reports a year, and in spring the first reports typically come in the first week of April. Last spring, the first report was filed on April 4 from Renville County close to the Canadian border, Szymanski said.


Within two or three weeks in spring the birds all move through North Dakota, but in fall Szymanski said the migration isn’t as urgent and reports can come in from late September stretching into  late November, depending on weather.


Over the next few weeks as that spring migration occurs, some lucky people wil get a chance to report sightings so the birds can be tracked.


These magnificent birds are regarded as unmistakable. I’ve seen them displayed in museums and they stand about five feet tall and have a wingspan of about seven feet from tip to tip.


They are bright white with black wing tips, which are visible only when the wings are outspread. In flight they extend their long necks straight forward, while their long, slender legs extend out behind the tail. Whooping cranes typically migrate singly, or in groups of 2-3 birds, and may be associated with sandhill cranes.


Other white birds such as snow geese, swans and egrets are often mistaken for whooping cranes.  The most common misidentification is pelicans, because their wingspan is similar and they tuck their pouch in flight, leaving a silhouette similar to a crane when viewed from below.


Anyone sighting whoopers should not disturb them, but record the date, time, location, and the birds’ activity. Observers should also look closely for and report colored bands which may occur on one or both legs. Whooping cranes have been marked with colored leg bands to help determine their identity.


Whooping crane sightings should be reported to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices at Lostwood, 701-848-2466, or Long Lake, 701-387-4397, national wildlife refuges; the state Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, 701-328-6300, or to local game wardens across the state.


Reports help biologists locate important whooping crane habitat areas, monitor marked birds, determine survival and population numbers, and identify times and migration routes.

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