Whooping crane reintroduction efforts on the Eastern Flyway involve raising young whooping cranes and accompanying them on their migratory flights with ultralight gliders. The USFWS designated the whooping cranes in this population “nonessential and experimental.”  So, one might surmise, it’s OK if they get shot by hunters thinking they’re sandhill cranes? It gives one to wonder why this designation was made.

Over the winter, the universe lost four whooping cranes to what appears to be recreational shooting: three gunned down together in Georgia on December 30, 2010, and another in Alabama on January 28, 2011. There are 400 whooping cranes left in the wild, 100 of them in the eastern population. Another 170 are in captivity, many of them breeding stock for reintroduction efforts.

One percent of the wild population of whooping cranes fell to guns this winter alone. What could motivate gunmen (I cannot call them hunters) in two states to deliberately kill North America’s tallest and most critically endangered bird? Fun? Sport? Speculation is useless in acts of vandalism. It may be as simple as trying to hit the big white one. It may be as sick as deliberately targeting an endangered species for death. Unfortunately, sick people can get guns just as easily as sane people can.

With the proposed hunting seasons on sandhill cranes being discussed in Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin, we must not forget the whooping crane, which travels and winters in the big sandhill crane flocks. We must not forget ignorance, bad lighting, adrenaline, and accidents. Hunting sandhill cranes in the Eastern flyway will put those 100 whooping cranes at even greater risk of being brought down by gunfire, hunter education courses and handy color brochures notwithstanding.

Quick: what’s this?

Photo used by permission of Arthur M. Peslak, Nature Images by Art

Did you hesitate in calling that a sandhill crane? Me, too.  Looks pretty white, doesn’t it? Soo…if all the cranes look white in a light regime like this, how does an excited hunter tell which one is the endangered one? Why not just  shoot the biggest one? That’s what you do with other game, right? The biggest gobbler, the biggest buck…

And this? Wait. I thought whooping cranes were all white. Aren’t young sandhill cranes brownish, too? This can be a little confusing, even for birders.

From the USFWS website.

In feverishly searching flocks of sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache for dwindling numbers of whooping cranes, I spotted scores of whooping cranes. Sandhill cranes banking in bright sunlight against a dark sky can look startlingly white. And whooping cranes in bad light, say dawn and dusk, when hunters are most likely to be out after sandhills, can look startlingly dark. Eventually, I found the lone whooping crane present at the refuge by its call. I heard a sonorous trumpet coming from a large flock of feeding sandhills, and I jolted to attention. I knew I’d never heard that before. And I combed through the flock with a spotting scope until I found the tall one. The big white one.

Birders know that the light’s not always perfect or even particularly good when you’re trying to tell one species from another. Do all hunters realize that? The difference: A whooping crane misidentified by a birder doesn’t die. It flies on.

photo by JZ

When a population of birds numbers only 400 in the wild, there can be no such thing as a “nonessential” individual. You can designate it thus; you can legally call it a Rhode Island Red chicken if you want, but no whooping crane on this planet is nonessential. Not when we have but 400 to spare. And I submit that it poses an unacceptable risk to whooping cranes to encourage hunting of the very populations of sandhill cranes that mingle with them.

photo by Cyndi Routledge

Here it is then, another angle on the proposed sandhill crane seasons in Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin. Another thing to consider. More states will doubtless join the queue of those proposing hunts. And you have been asked to write, and write you have. Your letters doubtless helped slow Tennessee down for a two year moratorium on crane hunting. Kentucky  is still accepting letters; the March 15 deadline cited in my last post was gleaned from the National Rifle Association’s site, which may have misreported the facts. Now, it’s time to go to the top.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells states when they may propose a hunting season on cranes, and has ultimate jurisdiction over whether the states get their seasons. So we can squawk at the state wildlife departments all we want, but the USFWS has the final say. So it’s time to send letters not only to the proposing states, but to the Feds. And it’s time to sign a petition to the USFWS that asks them to reconsider the provision in their Eastern Sandhill Crane Management Plan that calls for hunting of this recovering population.

Here’s the petition. My friend Vickie Henderson, who has some serious long-range vision, looked at the science behind Tennessee’s crane hunting proposal and found it badly wanting. She drew this petition up to ask the USFWS to reconsider the clause in its management plan that calls for hunting Eastern sandhill cranes. Sign it here: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/sandhill-cranes-new-plan/

And here’s where to write, voicing your objection to hunting eastern sandhill cranes. Hint for your letter: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has just returned from Nebraska’s Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, where he fell silent, entranced by the spectacle of tens of thousands of sandhill cranes rising from the braided shallows of the Platte. In the only state in the Central Flyway that protects cranes from hunting.

photo by Cyndi Routledge

He called the Platte wetlands restoration project “a crown jewel for Nebraska.” No one who witnesses a morning rise of sandhill cranes can fail to be moved by the magic of these birds. And no one who witnesses this along with throngs of other bird enthusiasts can miss the significance of cranes as an ecotourism draw. Write him now:


The Honorable Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior

Department of the Interior

1849 C. Street, N.W.

Mail Stop 7060 Washington, D.C. 20240


And write:


Rowan W. Gould

Secretary, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

1849 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20240


And to voice your opposition to Kentucky’s new hunt proposal, write


Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife

Jon Gassett, Commissioner

One Sportsman’s Lane

Frankfort, Kentucky 40601


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Nobody needs to shoot sandhill cranes. Nobody needs to eat them. They are shot for sport, and sometimes for food. And fun and food are, I’d submit, not enough reason to fell a bird in which only one in three pairs manages to raise a single chick each season; a bird that has captured the imagination and hearts of tens of thousands of people, whose sonorous purr floats down from on high like the voice of a pterosaur. Ask the proposing states to follow Nebraska’s example, to let them, and their big, desperately imperiled white cousins, alone.

Photo by Jim Rickards, gleaned from fredmiranda.com

Heartfelt thanks to Vickie Henderson, Cyndi Routledge, and The Honorable Ken Salazar for going out and witnessing what all the fuss is about. Apologies for my error in reporting that the Kentucky Ornithological Society has joined the Beckham Bird Club in publicly opposing the hunt proposal. It has not. As always, thank you for caring, and for writing.

Written by Julie
Julie Zickefoose is an artist, naturalist and writer specializing in natural history. Her writing is based on keen observation of animal and human behavior, and she likes to interweave solid natural history information with larger philosophical themes to challenge and inspire the reader. Julie contributes three-minute natural history commentaries to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She illustrates her books and magazine articles with her own sketches and watercolor paintings. Letters from Eden (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) will soon be followed by a memoir about the birds she has raised, healed, studied and followed throughout her life. She lives at Indigo Hill, an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio with her husband, Bill Thompson III, their children Phoebe and Liam, and their Boston terrier, Chet Baker.