Whooping Crane fall migration is here in central Kansas. Each year during late October and early November, the endangered birds can be seen at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, and in marshes and crop fields around the region. At Quivira, the best areas to look for them are at the south end of Little Salt Marsh (where there is an Observation Tower from which to scan the marsh) and the west side of Big Salt Marsh.
An endangered species, the Whooping Crane is protected by federal law. Observers must maintain a ½-mile distance from the birds to prevent disturbing or harassing them. In addition, during the period that Whooping Cranes are in the Quivira area, all hunting at Quivira will be suspended until the birds have left the area.
Whooping Cranes are North America’s tallest species of bird, standing about 5 feet tall. Several unique qualities help to identify them. When standing, the birds have long necks and legs, and are all white, with a dark red cap and "mustache", dark gray bill, and black legs. Large feathers on the back end make standing birds appear to have a "bustle". In flight, the necks are held straight out, and the legs extend well beyond the tail. The wing tips are black, but otherwise the birds are mostly white. In addition, cranes do not perch in trees and cannot swim.
Other birds that may be mistaken for Whooping Cranes, and are often seen in the same areas during the same period, include the White Pelican, several herons and egrets, swans, and the Snow Goose. White Pelicans are very large birds with a lot of white, but they have very short legs and large orange bills, have black all the way down the wing, and carry their necks bent in flight. Herons and egrets are tall, long-legged birds, but all carry their necks bent in flight. The all-white Great Egret has an orange bill and has no black on the wings. Swans are swimmers with very short legs and have all white feathering. Snow Geese are white with black wing tips, but are otherwise very short-legged and are good swimmers.
The world population of Whooping Cranes dwindled to a low of 16 birds in the early 1940s. Since then, the population has steadily increased due to protection and a varied captive breeding program in several places in the United States and Canada. Counting naturally-occurring wild birds, as well as introduced and captive populations, the world population is over 500. The Wood Buffalo/Aransas flock, numbering around 300 birds, is the only remaining, naturally-occurring wild population of Whooping Cranes. It migrates between the nesting and wintering grounds each spring and fall, passing through the center of the Great Plains. Each autumn, the birds leave the nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park (in Northwest Territories, Canada) and pass through the Quivira area in late October and early November. Typically, the birds travel in groups of 2-5 birds and stop briefly to rest and feed in area marshes and grain fields. Most winter in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. In spring, the route is reversed, and the birds briefly pass through the Quivira area in late March and early April.
When Whooping Cranes are first spotted at Quivira this fall, a news release will be sent out to media outlets, and hunting will be suspended at the Refuge until notice is again given. Visitors to the Refuge are reminded that there is no guarantee that Whooping Cranes can be seen at any given time, due to the birds’ unpredictable movements each day. If you wish to see Whooping Cranes, it is best to plan a visit to view the Refuge and its large numbers of waterfowl, with the chance of seeing the rare birds as an added treat.
If you observe Whooping Cranes anywhere in Kansas, please write down as many details as possible, including specific location, date, time, description and number of birds, and a contact name and telephone number(s) for you to be reached. All observations should be directed to the Quivira staff at 620-486-2393. After hours callers should leave a detailed voice message. For current updates about Whooping Cranes and other Refuge information, check the website at www.fws.gov/quivira