Birds – Whooping Crane

We may begin the detailed consideration of the Cranes with the typical and largest genus (Grits), which embraces more than a third of the species, three well-marked forms of which are found in North America, the largest being the Whooping Crane (G. americana). This magnificent bird is from fifty to fifty-four inches in length and has a spread of wings of about ninety-two inches. In the mature bird the plumage is pure white throughout, with the exception of the quills which are black, while in the young the white is overlaid by patches of rusty, especially above. In the young bird the head is feathered, but when it has attained maturity the cheeks as well as the entire crown are bare, this character being sometimes made the basis of a generic separation. The Whooping Crane is practically confined to the central portion of the country, ranging north as far as the Saskatchewan, and spending the winter in the marshes and swamps of Florida, Texas, and central Mexico. Its principal avenue of travel is the Mississippi Valley, and it rarely wanders far from this track. In former days it probably enjoyed a much wider distribution, for according to Alexander Wilson, one of America’s pioneer ornithologists, it once nested at Cape May, New Jersey, but its great size and conspicuously white plumage made it a too tempting mark, and it has been forced to seek wilder and more open country. It feeds largely upon vegetable substances, such as roots of the water-lily and other aquatic plants, and in its winter home is said to be fond of frequenting fields where corn, peas, sweet potatoes, etc., have been grown, where it picks up such as may have been accidentally left, and it also feeds on aquatic insects, frogs, reptiles, and field mice. Although a few pairs may still stop in the Northern Central States to rear their young, the main body pass farther north. Mr. Ernest E. Thompson (now Thompson Seton) reports it as a tolerably common migrant, but a rare summer resident in Manitoba, where it is locally known as the “Flying Sheep,” while according to Sir John Richardson, it frequents every part of the fur countries. “It migrates,” he says, “in flocks, performing its journeys at night and at such an altitude that its passage is known only by the peculiarly shrill screams which it utters. . . . It rises with difficulty from the ground, flying low for a time, and affording a fair mark to the sportsman; but if not entirely disabled by a shot, fights with great determination, and can inflict very severe wounds with its formidable bill.” Instances have been known of this bird driving its bill deep into the bowels of a hunter when not successful in warding off its blow. The nest is said to be placed in a marsh and the eggs, apparently two in number, are grayish white sparsely marked, especially at the larger end, with bold patches of dark rusty brown.