When Is A Whooping Crane Not A Whooping Crane?

Along the Central Platte River in Nebraska, there is an annual congregation of hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes during the month of March.  For about two decades or so, there has also been a single whooping crane that appears to arrive and depart with those sandhill cranes.  There are various theories about why the whooper hangs around with sandhill cranes instead of its own kind, but most of us assume it is unaware of, or possibly uninterested in other whooping cranes.  We’re not really sure where it goes during the rest of the year, but it always shows up when the sandhill cranes come through each spring.

This whooping crane has been hanging out with sandhill cranes for about 20 years or more – assuming it’s the same bird each year.  It certainly stands out in a crowd, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, it’s not the crowd it’s supposed to be hanging out with.

It’s kind of a sad situation, but does give visitors to this part of the state an improved chance of seeing a whooping crane.  Most whoopers migrate through this area later in the spring, after the sandhill cranes (and the crowds that come to watch them) have left.  A fairly small percentage of whooping cranes stop at the Platte each spring, and those that do stop are usually just here for a night or two, making it unlikely that many people will see them.  By contrast, the “lonely” whooper often stays for a few weeks or more, making it pretty accessible to grateful crane watchers.

As I was driving out for an early morning crane tour last weekend, I was thinking about the lonely whooping crane.  It had been hanging around near our viewing blinds along the river’s edge over the last week or two.  I knew there was a good chance we’d see the whooper on the river in front of our blinds (and we did!) but I was also thinking about something else.  What if the whooper left the river while we were in the viewing blind and landed in the grassland between the blind and where our vehicles were parked?  Since it’s a federal crime to disturb an endangered bird, we might be stuck in the blinds for a few extra hours, waiting for the whooping crane to leave.

When we first snuck into the blind, it was mostly dark, and most of the cranes were still asleep. We thought we saw something white in the sea of gray, but we had to wait until the light got a little stronger before we were sure of what we were seeing. The other two photographers with me had lenses longer than my arm (more on that later this week). This shot was taken with my puny little 18-300mm lens and then cropped liberally to make the whooper look bigger than a little white dot.

That discomforting thought led me down a rambling philosophical journey as I drove (did I mention it was early in the morning?) about whether or not that lonely bird should actually count as a whooping crane.  By law, of course, it does count, and there’s no question about that.  But what about in an existential sense?

The endangered species act is supposed to help populations of rare species recover, right?  We’ve added layers of protection for the remaining individuals of those rare species so they can survive and reproduce, increasing the size of their population.  But what if an individual is separated from its kind and doesn’t even recognize what it is?  If our lonely whooping crane has no chance of ever interacting with other whoopers, let alone reproducing, how should we categorize it?  Whooping cranes in zoos are physically removed from the wild population, but still have the potential to breed and create more whoopers, which could potentially be returned to the wild at some point.  The lonely whooping crane doesn’t seem to have that possibility.

After it woke up and stretched a little, the whooper wandered slowly upstream a quarter of a mile or more before we lost sight of it. It seemed to be walking completely alone – not following other birds. The sandhill cranes didn’t seem bothered by it, but also didn’t seem to interact with it in any way.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not saying the lonely whooping crane isn’t important, and I’m not advocating that it be somehow removed from its protected status under the law.  I just found it interesting to think about what it means to be part of a species.  Do you have to be a contributing member?  Is reproduction the way animals pay dues to their species?  If our lonely whooping crane isn’t really a whooping crane, what is it?

I can’t emphasize enough how early it was in the morning when I was thinking about this.  I often do my best thinking while driving, but I’m not sure this counts.  Also, I honestly feel grateful to have the opportunity to see whooping cranes (including this one) fairly regularly during their migration, and I probably shouldn’t take that for granted.  However, being grateful doesn’t mean I can’t allow my mind to wander into the realm of whooping crane existentialism, does it?

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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26 Responses to When Is A Whooping Crane Not A Whooping Crane?

  1. Larry Hartzke says:

    I wonder whether a whooping crane could mate with a sandhill crane. Does anyone know?

    • Friends of the Wild Whoopers says:

      Larry Hartzke, yes it is possible for a whooping crane and sandhill crane to mate and produce an offspring. In fact, a few years ago, one such mating resulted in a “whoophill” hatching in the wild in Wisconsin. The parents were a male from the reintroduced WI flock of whooping cranes and the female, a sandhill crane. The “whoophill”, although more than likely sterile, was captured and is now residing at the International Crane Foundation in WI.

  2. Eliza says:

    LLlllllove this post and I saw him!! My first one!

  3. Kim says:

    If I remember correctly back to grad school, evolutionary change occurs at the population level. An individual of a species is relatively useless unless it is within a population of that species. A great example here. A bit sad for the whooper though.

  4. James C. Trager says:

    I wonder if people involved in whooper conservation would be interested in attempting to get this individual into their program?

  5. Always love your ruminations . . . no exception this time.

  6. Pat Halderman says:

    I also love this post! I have been searching for over 6 years to see this Whopping Crane and I saw him/her Sunday morning! I can’t tell you how thrilled I was and still am. I could see clearly with my binoculars…..saw him walking and flapping those beautiful wings. I also was a bit sad to think of the loss of a breeding bird, but extremely grateful to see this magical bird.

  7. Katherine Hamilton-Smith says:

    Whooping Crane Existentialism!

  8. Kelly H. says:

    Animals in the upper classes Mammalia and Aves have extremely complex behaviors within individuals of any of the given species, no different than the complex spectrum of behaviors seen in our own species. Crane behavior has been shown to be one of the most complex of any bird species, and without knowing the life history of this particular individual, there may be a very good reason for this seemingly solitary behavior. Take solace in the fact that this crane may be doing exactly what it wants to do, and may feel completely comfortable with this type of existence. The fact that it has apparently survived for over 20 years would indicate a fairly low level of stress within this life style that it exhibits.

  9. marknupen says:

    This might be a modern ‘integration’ experiment? Katherine above “Whooping Crane Existentialism’ and can’t argue with that???

  10. Paul Nielsen says:

    This individual might be a reminent of the 20th century experiment to have Oregon based sand hill cranes raise some Whoopers to start a western flock. Whooper eggs were hatched by and the young raised by Sand Hills. The Whoopers never found each other and the experiment was abandoned. About that time, my job took me to Socorro, New Mexico. While we were there, a colleague and I drove down and around in the Bosque Del Apache N.W.R. There were many Sand Hills with a number of Whoopers mixed in. (Don’t remember the number, but it may have been as many as 7.) We did not get out of the car and the birds were not disturbed by our presence. As I recall, this was in the late 80s,

  11. Existential thoughts are good for the morning. Helps to wake up the brain.

  12. Karen says:

    If reproduction is essential to being considered a contributing member of a species, I guess I will have to hand in my “human” card. :-) Perhaps there’s also a question to be asked here about human management of animal populations (especially if this lone whooper’s behavior is a result of well-intentioned, but unhelpful, human efforts).

  13. shoreacres says:

    Of course it’s a whooping crane. Besides, who’s to say it’s lonely? or that it’s situation is sad? It’s unusual — no question about that — but if we start categorizing species by how we interpret their behavior, wouldn’t chaos be right around the corner?

  14. bob mills says:

    Chis I was monitoring this wc a few years ago presuming its the same bird, my job was to record ever 15min what the wc was doing. At 5:00 sharp I put my binoculars on the wc and while observing it a second wc just fell out of the air and landed within 15ft of wc #1. This wc was not known to be in the area until then. There were at least 800 to 1000 sandhill cranes as well.The two wc acknowledged each other by walking around each other at least once then started to feed. As they were feeding wc #1 slowly followed wc #2 at a distance of 20-25ft. Wc #2 only stayed in this field for 1.5 hrs then I think headed to roost at the river. When wc#1 left for roost 30-45min later it returned to same location as it had done all along.Wc#2 was found on roost 2mi up river the next morning. I was really hoping that they would have gone to roost together but that did not hppen.

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  16. Peter Dunwiddie says:

    Notwithstanding Kim’s comment, evolutionary change does not occur entirely by chance mutations within a breeding population of a species. Numerous species have arisen (and continue to arise) through hybridization between subspecies within a species, as well as between different species. It appears that sandhills and whooping cranes can mate (see “Friends of” comment above). Apparently, the one observed such event did not produce fertile offspring. However, most scientists I know wouldn’t extrapolate too far from an n of 1. If this bird ever did find a mate and produced fertile offspring, I personally would feel fortunate to be a witness to such evidence of evolution in action. Most such events tend to escape our notice. Perhaps such a conjugation may never take place, but I’d save the wringing of hands (and any well-intended translocations) for another day. Like Shoreacres notes, I’m not sure we should use “lonely” to characterize this bird’s condition – brave might be a bit more apt. After all, aren’t we, as Homo sapiens, fortunate that at least a few of our own ancestors sought to procreate with other Homos that looked a bit different from themselves?

  17. Patrick says:

    I guess I have to wonder whether we really know whether or not he really socializes and mates with his own kind after he gets up North. He might be traveling with the Sandhills because there is greater safety in larger numbers, and he can reach his territory earlier than his competitor Whoopers. Arriving early may also allow him to be more fully rested when the others arrive and he has to compete. Just a thought.

  18. Katie Fobert says:

    Perhaps he is just a smart whooping crane who wants to get to the mating grounds before the others to get the best breeding site like the few blue herons that stay all winter in Northern Illinois. but I am not familiar with crane behavior.

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  20. aea says:

    If you really want to consider some crane existentialism, I highly recommend chapter 4 in Thom Van Dooren’s book “Flight Ways” (actually the entire book is highly recommended). Van Dooren is an environmental philosopher and I use this text in a course I teach to undergrads in environmental and urban studies.
    In this bit of the book, he mentions that it’s not typical anymore to use Sandhills to help to raise Whoopers (for the purposes of sustaining the Whooping Crane population). The imprinting is such that the Whooping Cranes weren’t able to mate successfully with their own kind- they didn’t recognize or participate in mating behaviors correctly.
    By the end, you might be musing about not just whether this individual is a Whooping Crane, but whether Whooping Cranes are already extinct…

  21. Shirley Baxley says:

    I up there in 1989 and we were tracking 7 of the whooping cranes along with the Sand hill..it was exciting to help track them and did not have near the tech as now

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