Through mid-November, a flock of one of North America’s rarest birds will pass right through Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is asking state residents to report sightings.
“Just over 300 Whooping Cranes are en route from Canada to their wintering location along the central Texas coast,” said Mark Howery, wildlife diversity biologist for the Wildlife Department.
By 1941, only 19 of the cranes were known to exist due to loss of wetland habitat and unregulated market hunting during the mid 1800s. Though the species has never been common, the five-foot-tall endangered birds are slowly developing into a conservation success story.
“Conservation measures such as the protection of breeding and wintering habitats have helped the small population grow fifteen-fold over the past 70 years,” said Howery. “In Oklahoma, the Wildlife Department asks that you report any whooping crane sightings to aid this effort.”
Howery said the birds tend to use shallow wetlands, marshes, river bottoms and partially flooded pastures and grain fields in the western half of the state.
“Whooping cranes typically migrate during the day in groups of one to six birds,” Howery said. “They can be identified by their large size, bold white plumage, black tips on their feathers, red and black markings on their heads, and their long legs that extend beyond their tail feathers while in flight and long, stretched neck during flight.”
Despite their distinct appearance, they are often confused with the white pelican (short legs with a large band of black feathers along the trailing edge of each wing — not just the tip), snow goose (short legs not visible beyond tail feathers, flies in large flocks of 30 or more birds), and great egret (no black feathers on its wings, holds its neck in an S-shape when in flight). Also, during low light or backlit conditions, whooping cranes and sandhill cranes will both appear dark and can look similar.
To report a whooping crane sighting in Oklahoma, contact Howery at (405) 424-2728. The Department requests to receive information such as the date, time, approximate location, number of birds and habitat they were using during the sighting during the report.