Whooping cranes are beginning their annual migration south through North Dakota and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department are asking people to report any sightings to either agency.
Mike Rabenberg, a USFWS wildlife biologist at the Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge said the birds migration from Canada is just getting started and should run through October.
“It varies somewhat by year, depending on the weather of course, but last year we had whooping cranes in North Dakota about the 7th or 8th of November,” Rabenberg said. “Usually it’s a little earlier than that; usually about the end of October they’re pretty well all through.”
Adult whooping cranes are white, about 5 feet tall with black feathers on the tips of their wings, which are only visible when the 7-foot wingspan is fully extended.
The state game and fish department says other white birds such as snow geese, swans and egrets are often mistaken for whooping cranes. They often are found in areas frequently inhabited by sand hill cranes and are commonly mistaken for pelicans because a pelican’s wingspan is similar and they tuck their pouch in during flight, resembling a crane when viewed from below.
The sighting reports are for tracking purposes, and observers are asked to look for bands on the birds’ legs and note the sequence of colors.
Rabenberg said Canadian wildlife workers have been banding some of the young at the birds’ breeding grounds in the Buffalo National Park in Alberta.
The path of the birds’ flight will bring them through northwest and south central areas of the state, but Rabenberg said they could be seen anywhere. The cranes feed in grain fields and pastures and roost along the edge of a wetland in the evenings.
“Usually they migrate as a family group. Often times you’ll see two adults and one juvenile. The young of the year have some brown feathers mixed in with the white feathers so they’re a little easier to spot,” he said.
Mike Szymanski, a wildlife biologist with the NDGFD, said there have been some reports of people seeing cranes, but could not give the locations due to the Endangered Species Act.
“We don’t want the birds getting undue attention,” Szymanski said. “It’s really easy to push them into fences and power lines, things like that. They are unfortunately prone to flying into things.”