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Distinguishing Whooping Cranes from similar species

The period when Whooping Cranes migrate through Nebraska is here.  Whooping Cranes migrate from breeding sites at Wood Buffalo Park, Canada, to their wintering sites at and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, every fall.  In four to six weeks, hopefully the entire Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock of about 300+ birds will have successfully migrated to Texas.   Migrating 2,500 miles is risky business and this is a critical few weeks for these birds.   NGPC, along with our partners, rely on the public to help  us track these state and federally endangered birds as they stopover in our state.  I know a lot of eyes will be out and about over the next few weeks enjoying Nebraska’s outdoors.  If you think you see a Whooping Crane, please do two things:

  1. Report the sighting to NGPC (I  provide contact information at the end of this post).
  2. Do not approach or harass Whooping Cranes for any reason.

Every migration, we receive reports of Whooping Cranes that end up being some other species.  That is OK, we appreciate folks providing reports even when they are not absolutely certain.  Nevertheless, reviewing Whooping Crane identification and familiarizing everyone with similar species regularly reported as Whooping Cranes may be beneficial.  Below, I provide a series of photographs of Whooping Cranes and similar species and provide a few identification tips.   Thus, all of these species may be encountered in our state.

Whooping Crane in flight
Whooping Crane in flight with key field marks noted.
Sandhills Cranes in flight
Sandhills Cranes in flight. Size, shape, and flying style are similar to Whooping Crane, but overall coloration is different. Sandhill Cranes are gray and lack the distinct fully black primaries. Beware of backlit Sandhill Cranes that appear silvery white or even leucistic (white) Sandhill Cranes.
American White Pelicans in flight
American White Pelicans are regularly misidentified as Whooping Cranes because the two species are large and share a similar color pattern. Body shape and flying style distinguish these birds from Whoopers. Notice the pelican’s short legs that do not extend beyond the tail.  The neck is not extended, it is tucked back.  However, those monster bills makes these birds appear large and heavy up front.
Snow and Ross's Geese
Snow and Ross’s Geese (both pictured here) also share a similar color pattern to Whooping Cranes. However, both species are much smaller and differences in body shape and size should be apparent in most cases.
Whooping Cranes in corn
When Whooping Cranes are standing their black primaries are essentially concealed. The posture of these cranes is distinctive, however, and habitat is a good clue. Most other large white birds, other than Snow and Ross’s Geese and Trumpeter Swans, are not expected to be found in an agricultural field.
Trumpeter Swans
Trumpeter Swans are large white birds that often occur in pairs or small groups, just like Whoopers. Trumpeter Swans also fly with their necks outstretched. However, Trumpeter Swans have short legs that do not or just barely extend past their tail in flight.  They also lack any black on the wings. Trumpeters Swans are usually found on water, but they will forage in agricultural fields, particularly in winter.
Great Egret
Great Egrets stand erect and have long necks like Whooping Cranes. However, egrets lack any facial pattern like Whoopers and do not have any black on their wings. In flight, herons and egrets tuck their necks back toward their bodies, but they also have long legs like Whooping Cranes.
Snowy Egret
The Snowy Egret is another white bird that stands erect, but it is even smaller than the Great Egret.  Snowy Egrets also do not have any black on their wings.
Sora
Soras (a rail) are related to Whooping Cranes and also occur at wetlands, so beware. Soras can often be distinguished from Whooping Cranes by closely inspecting just about any feature on this bird :-).
Whooping Crane and similar species
This graphic is helpful in comparing the sizes, shapes and flying styles of Whooping Cranes and similar species covered in this blog post.
Whooping Cranes in flight
One more look at Whooping Cranes in flight.

Below are some videos of Whooping Cranes in Nebraska.

If you happen to observe Whooping Cranes in Nebraska, please contact one of the following NGPC offices (I have left off a few offices outside of Whooping Cranes traditional migratory corridor):

Lincoln:  402-471-0641

North Platte:  308-535-8025

Kearney:  308-865-5310

Bassett:  402-684-2921

Also, you can contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 308-379-5562.

If it is a weekend or after hours, feel free to send me an email at joel.jorgensen@nebraska.gov

Nongame Bird Program

This post was originally published on 17 Oct 2013.

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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