A whooping crane stands about 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of more than 7 feet, and is North America’s tallest bird. Whooping cranes are also the rarest crane in the world. Once found all across the continent, there are now only about 600 birds in the wild. There are two distinct migratory populations. One travels from northwestern Canada in the summer to the Gulf Coast of Texas in the winter. The other spends the summer in central Wisconsin and winters in central Florida and coastal Louisiana. For more, go to www.savingcranes.org.
Educational trunks filled with a manual and various items related to whooping cranes will be available by the end of January. The trunks are located at the 4-H Purdue Extension Office in Bloomfield, Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis, Sassafras Audubon Society in Bloomington, Sycamore Land Trust in Bloomington and Dobbs Park Nature Center in Terre Haute. The Evansville Audubon Society is paying for a crane trunk to go to Wesselman Woods Nature Society in Evansville. For more about the trunks and to check them out, go to www.savingcranes.org/education/whooping-crane-trunk.
• If you see a whooping crane in the wild, you should not approach it on foot within 200 yards. Remain in your vehicle and don’t get closer than 100 yards. Do not speak loudly enough for the birds to hear you. And don’t trespass on private property. Never attempt to feed the birds. Each exposure to people lessens the birds’ fear of humans; that fear is an important survival mechanism. Feeding the cranes can result in the birds becoming dependent on people for food. The biologists, veterinarians, pilots and volunteers have worked in costumes and in silence to ensure the birds do not become imprinted, or dependent on people.
• When reporting a sighting to others on listservs, social media and elsewhere, no specific locations should be given to ensure crowds of people do not bother the birds. There are nine wildlife areas, including Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area in Greene County, where the name of the refuge or park can be used as long as more specific information is not included. The other eight areas are in Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Alabama.
Whooping cranes are some of the rarest species on Earth, and there have been up to 44 of them spotted in Indiana so far this winter.
In an effort to educate Hoosiers about the birds, James Kawlewski, a whooping crane outreach program assistant with the International Crane Foundation, relocated to Greene County in November and will be in Indiana through March. Most days, Kawlewski can be found at the Goose Pond Visitors Center or — later in the day, when the center closes — at the Dairy Queen in Bloomfield.
Indiana and Alabama are the only two states that have outreach programs to educate residents about whooping cranes. Both are stopover states for whooping cranes, and in both, people have shot and killed some of the birds. Illegal shootings are one of the threats the whooping cranes face, and this is the month, historically, when many of those deaths occur. In the past five years, nearly 40 percent of all whooping crane shootings happened in January.
In late December 2016 or early January 2017, a female whooping crane was killed near Lyons in Greene County. A $15,000 reward is still available for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for killing the bird. That was the second whooping crane found dead in Greene County in recent years; the first was found dead in early January 2012.
“They’ve already faced other predation,” Kawlewski said about the cranes, adding that natural predators such as bobcats and manmade dangers such as power lines kill some birds. “We want people to know that it’s an endangered species, and they should care about them.”
The whooping cranes that fly through or stop in Indiana are part of the eastern population that has been re-established in large part by the group Operation Migration, which raised whooping cranes that were then led along migration paths from Wisconsin to Florida using ultralight aircraft. Whooping cranes began migrating through Indiana in 2003.
Although the aircraftaided migration ended in 2015, Operation Migration has continued to help other agencies and groups raise and release chicks in Wisconsin that follow adult birds along the migration path south to Florida.