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Montana Field Guides

Whooping Crane - Grus americana

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G1
State Rank: S1M
(see State Rank Reason below)

Agency Status

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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
State Rank Reason (see State Rank above)
The federally endangered Whooping Crane occasionally migrate across the eastern portion of Montana, although their main migratory corridor is found to the east in the Dakotas. While the species was close to extinction during the early and mid-1900s, intensive management has helped to begin the recovery process. The species is still very rare across its range and at risk of extinction.
  • Details on Status Ranking and Review
    Whooping Crane (Grus americana) Conservation Status Review
    Review Date = 12/22/2011
    Population Size

    ScoreA - 1-50 individuals

    CommentWhile the species is recovering, in 2010 there were only 383 wild individuals known across all populations. Eastern Montana is on the boundary of the migratory range and only a handful of individuals are observed during the migratory periods each year, certainly less than 50.

    Range Extent

    ScoreE - 5,000-20,000 km squared (about 2,000-8,000 square miles)

    Comment7,552 square kilometers based on Natural Heritage Program range maps that appear on the Montana Field Guide

    Area of Occupancy

    ScoreA - < 0.4 km squared (less than about 100 acres)

    CommentOnly use < 0.4 square kilometers within the state on any given year.

    Long-term Trend

    ScoreC - Substantial Decline (decline of 50-75%)

    CommentPopulation in 1870 was estimated at 1300 to 1400 birds whereas current global population was 383 in 2010.

    Short-term Trend

    ScoreE - Stable. Population, range, area occupied, and/or number or condition of occurrences unchanged or remaining within ±10% fluctuation

    CommentThe global population has been stable in recent years.


    ScoreA - Substantial, imminent threat. Threat is moderate to severe and imminent for most (>60%) of the population or area.

    CommentMigratory collision hazards, hurricanes, and drought.

    SeverityHigh - Loss of species population (all individuals) or destruction of species habitat in area affected, with effects essentially irreversible or requiring long-term recovery (>100 years).

    CommentLong lived, low fecundity species, that has had to have human assistance to recover from previous declines.

    ScopeHigh - > 60% of total population or area affected

    CommentThreats are likely faced by >60% of the population.

    ImmediacyModerate - Threat is likely to be operational within 2-5 years.


    Intrinsic Vulnerability

    ScoreA - Highly Vulnerable. Species is slow to mature, reproduces infrequently, and/or has low fecundity such that populations are very slow (> 20 years or 5 generations) to recover from decreases in abundance; or species has low dispersal capability such that extirpated populations are unlikely to become reestablished through natural recolonization (unaided by humans).

    CommentHighly Vulnerable. Species is slow to mature, reproduces infrequently, and/or has low fecundity such that populations are very slow (>20 years or 5 generations) to recover from decreases in abundance; or species has low dispersal capability such that extirpated populations are unlikely to become reestablished through natural recolonization (unaided by humans).

    Environmental Specificity

    ScoreB - Narrow. Specialist. Specific habitat(s) or other abiotic and/or biotic factors (see above) are used or required by the Element, but these key requirements are common and within the generalized range of the species within the area of interest.

    CommentNarrow Specialist. Roost in shallow wetlands.

    Raw Conservation Status Score

    Score 3.5 – 1.0 (population size) - 0.5 (area of occupancy) + 0.0 (short-term trend) - 1.0 (threats) = 1.0

General Description
The tallest bird of North America, the Whooping Crane reaches nearly 1.5 meters in height. The sexes appear similar; adult plumage is snowy-white overall, with males generally larger than females. Black primaries, not visible when the wings are folded, contrast with the otherwise white plumage. The crown, malar, and a patch on the nape are bare, exposing red skin. These areas are covered with black bristly feathers. They are more heavily feathered on the nape patch, making it appear black in color. The lores and malar region, extending down the throat, are more sparsely covered and appear red or crimson in color. The tertial wing feathers often conceal the bird's short tail while it is standing (Lewis 1995). The bill, generally olive-colored, is tipped in dark gray. The long legs are dark gray to black, while the feet are lighter in color, nearly to light tan (Lewis 1995). The iris in young birds is a dark olive, turning to a yellow or white-yellow as the birds mature (Lewis 1995).

The vocalization of the Whooping Crane is the feature that defines its common name. The call is described as a clear, loud, bugling "bKAAAH", high-pitched and longer than that of the Sandhill Crane (Sibley 2000). When alarmed, individuals give a loud, single note call (Lewis 1995). The loud resonating calls may be heard up to two miles away (Johnsgard 1986).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Viewed from a distance, only a few species may be confused with the Whooping Crane. The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) stands nearly the height of the Whooping Crane and although gray or light rusty-brown, the Sandhill Crane may appear whitish in bright light. In general, the Sandhill Crane's overall gray plumage, lack of black primaries, lack of red malars, and smaller stature (with a 1.4 meter wingspan in comparison to the 2.0 wingspan of the Whooping Crane) distinguish them from the endangered species. Two other bird species that may be confused with the Whooping Crane are the Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) and the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erthrorhynchos). These two species are primarily white and have black wingtips, but are smaller and shorter than the Whooping Crane. Unlike the Whooping Crane's longer legs, the short legs of these two species do not extend beyond the tail during flight.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions


Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 80

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

The Whooping Crane is known to fly through Montana during both spring and fall migration. Many of the recorded observations in the state indicate spring migration dates beginning as early in the year as April and fall departure dates occurring as late as the end of October (Skaar, unpublished data, Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). In general, migration dates are presumed similar to that of the Sandhill Crane (Johnsgard 1986), a species that commonly arrives in the state in mid-April and departs by mid-October (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012).

The Whooping Crane has been observed in the marsh habitat present at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Observations of individual birds in other areas of the state include grain and stubble fields as well as wet meadows, wet prairie habitat, and freshwater marshes that are usually shallow and broad with safe roosting sites and nearby foraging opportunities (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
No information is available specifically for Montana, but other studies have found that radio-marked migrants fed primarily in a variety of croplands (Howe 1989). The Whooping Crane generally probes in the mud or sand in or near shallow water, but may also take prey from the water column, or pick items from the substrate (Ehrlich et al. 1992). During summer the Whooping Crane feeds on insects, crustaceans, and berries.

No specific information regarding Whooping Crane ecology is available for Montana. In other parts of the species' range, ecology studies have shown mated pairs and families establish and defend winter territories on coastal marshes in Texas. During the breeding season, territories are very large, averaging 770 hectares (Johnsgard 1991). Home ranges of breeding pairs in Canada were about 3 to 19 square kilometers (Kuyt 1993). On the breeding grounds, predators include American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), Wolverine (Gulo gulo), Gray Wolf (Canis lupus), Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis), Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and Common Raven (Corvus corax) (Lewis 1995). A 10-year periodicity has been observed in Whooping Crane populations (Boyce and Miller 1985, Dennis et al. 1991).

Reproductive Characteristics
The Whooping Crane is not known to breed in the state. No observations of nesting exist for Montana (Johnsgard 1986). Information from other regions where Whooping Cranes do breed states the average age of first nesting is 4 years, although pair bonding may begin with 2 to 3 year old birds (Lewis 1995). The Whooping Crane breeds monogamously with the same mate throughout life. Breeding behavior of the Whooping Crane, which includes an elaborate mating dance, begins in late winter and increases with the coming of the spring migration. The species has strong fidelity to breeding territory, returning to nest generally in the same area (Lewis 1995). Breeding, which begins in early May, results in the laying of usually 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3, eggs (Baicich and Harrison 2005). The eggs are subelliptical, cream colored to greenish-olive with spots, blotches, or fine speckles of light brown, light purple, or reddish-brown (Baicich and Harrison 2005). Both sexes take turns incubating the eggs for 33 to 34 days. Both adults tend the precocial young, which fledge when no less than 10 weeks old (no earlier than mid-August). The young remain with parents until the following year (dissociating with adults after arrival on breeding grounds). This species is sexually mature at 4 to 6 years.

The original wild flock of Whooping Cranes, that which nests in Wood Buffalo and winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world. The two other flocks, the non-migratory flock in Florida and the Wisconsin/Florida flock were the result of Whooping Cranes hatched and reared in captivity and reintroduced into the wild. Florida's non-migratory flock began nesting in 1999. Seventeen subsequent nesting attempts were recorded, with the first chick fledging in June 2002. This bird was the first fledged of a second generation of non-migratory Whooping Cranes in Florida, and the first bird to be produced by captive reared, wild released, parents.

No management activities in Montana specific to Whopping Crane are currently known.

Additional information on the biology and management of Whooping Crane populations can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Environmental Conservation Online System Species Profile

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 2005. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Second edition. Academic Press, New York.
    • Boyce, M. S. and R. S. Miller. 1984. Ten-year periodicity in whooping crane census. Auk 102:658-660.
    • Dennis, B., P. L. Munholland, and J. M. Scott. 1991. Estimation of growth and extinction parameters for endangered species. Ecological Monographs 61:115-143.
    • Erhlich, P.R., D.S. Doblin, and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in jeopardy: the imperiled and extinct birds of the United States and Canada, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
    • Howe, M. A. 1989. Migration of radio-marked whooping cranes from the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population: patterns of habitat use, behavior, and survival. U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, Fish and Wildlife Technical Report 21. 33 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P. A. 1991. Crane music: a natural history of American cranes. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 136 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1986. Birds of the Rocky Mountains: with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder, CO.
    • Kuyt, E. 1993. Whooping crane, Grus americana, home range and breeding range expansion in Wood Buffalo National Park, 1970-1991. Canadian Field-Naturalist 107:1-12.
    • Lewis, J. C. 1995. Whooping Crane (Grus americana). In The birds of North America, No. 153 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and American Ornithologists’ Union. [Revised online 15 June 2015]
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists Union. 1983. Checklist of North American birds, 6th Edition. 877 PP.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Armbruster, M. J. 1990. Characterization of habitat used by whooping cranes during migration. U.S. Fish and Wildl. Serv. Biol. Rep. 90(4). 16 pp.
    • Clark, T.W., H.A. Harvey, R.D. Dorn, D.L. Genter, and C. Groves (eds). 1989. Rare, sensitive, and threatened species of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, Montana Natural Heritage Program, The Nature Conservancy, and Mountain West Environmental Services. 153 p.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Federal Register 62: 21 July 1997. Final Rule to Designate the Whooping Cranes of the Rocky Mountains as Experimental Nonessential and to Remove Whooping Crane Critical Habitat Designations from Four Locations. pp. 38932-38939.
    • Federal Register, 6 February 1996. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Proposal to Designate the Whooping Cranes of the Rocky Mountains as Experimental Nonessential and to Remove Whooping Crane Critical Habitat Designations from Four Locations. 4394-4401
    • Federal Register. 9 March 2001. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Proposal To Establish a Nonessential Experimental Population of Whooping Cranes in the Eastern United States. pp. 14108-14118.
    • Fish and Wildlife Service. 1980. Selected vertebrate endangered species of the seacoast of the United States: the whooping crane. FWS/OBS-80/01.3, Slidell.
    • Flath, D. L. 1975. The whooping crane. Montana Outdoors 6(6):2-5.
    • Hays, R., R.L. Eng, and C.V. Davis (preparers). 1984. A list of Montana birds. Helena, MT: MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
    • Hunt, H. E., and R. D. Slack. 1989. Winter diets of whooping and sandhill cranes in south Texas. J. Wildlife Management 53:1150-1154.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Joslin, Gayle, and Heidi B. Youmans. 1999. Effects of recreation on Rocky Mountain wildlife: a review for Montana. [Montana]: Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society.
    • Krajewski, C., and J. W. Fetzner, Jr. 1994. Phylogeny of cranes (Gruiformes: Gruidae) based on cytochrome-B DNA sequences. Auk 111:351-365.
    • Kuyt, E. 1995. The nest and eggs of the whooping crane, Grus canadensis. Canadian Field-Naturalist 109:1-5.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • Love, J. and P. Deininger. 1992. Characterization and phylogenetic significance of a repetitive DNA sequence from Whooping Cranes (Grus americana). The Auk 109(1):73-79.
    • Matthews, J.R. and C.J. Moseley (eds.). 1990. The Official World Wildlife Fund Guide to Endangered Species of North America. Volume 1. Plants, Mammals. xxiii + pp 1-560 + 33 pp. appendix + 6 pp. glossary + 16 pp. index. Volume 2. Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, Fishes, Mussels, Crustaceans, Snails, Insects, and Arachnids. xiii + pp. 561-1180. Beacham Publications, Inc., Washington, D.C.
    • Oechsli, L.M. 2000. Ex-urban development in the Rocky Mountain West: consequences for native vegetation, wildlife diversity, and land-use planning in Big Sky, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Montana State University, Bozeman. 73 p.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Snowbank, S.A., and C. Krajewski. 1995. Lack of restriction-site variation in mitochondrial-DNA control region of Whooping Cranes (Grus americana). The Auk 112(4):1045-1049.
    • Taylor, D.M. and C.H. Trost. 1987. The status of historically rare of unrecorded birds in Idaho. Unpublished manuscript. 68 p.
    • U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1981. The Platte River Ecology Study. N. Prairie Wildl. Res. Ctr., Jamestown. 187 pp.
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project. An internet search for current information on the status of Whooping Crane populations.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Waldt, R. 1995. The Pine Butte Swamp Preserve bird list. Choteau, MT: The Nature Conservancy. Updated August 1995.
    • Watts, C.R. and L.C. Eichhorn. 1981. Changes in the birds of central Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 40:31-40.
    • Whooping Crane Conservation Association. 2003. Online informational search. The first wild born Whooping Crane in 63 years.
    • Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. 2003. International Whooping Crane Recovery Team Whooping Crane Recovery Activities. September 2002-March 2003. Online informational search on Whooping Cranes.
    • Whooping Crane Recovery Team: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, National Audubon Society, 1980, Whooping Crane Recovery Plan
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Whooping Crane — Grus americana.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from