Whooping cranes migrating through South Dakota skies

Whooping cranes migrating through South Dakota skies The 1999 spring migration marks the 48th year of monitoring whooping cranes in the U.S. and Canada, according to S.D. Game, Fish and Parks officials.

Endangered Species Biologist Eileen Dowd Stukel said nearly 200 endangered whooping cranes, including 18 young, will migrate through South Dakota during the next few weeks. The birds are on their 2,500-mile journey from their wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast to their Canadian breeding areas.

The whooping crane is one of the rarest of North American birds, and its recovery has been slow but steady. Stukel said whooping cranes are a victim of wetland drainage and destruction.

"Only 16 whoopers remained 50 years ago," Stukel said. "Legal protection and public cooperation have helped this species recover from near extinction."

Whoopers are all white with black wingtips, visible only in flight. They fly with neck and long legs extended. Stukel noted that white pelicans are also white with black wingtips.

"A pelican's short legs don't extend beyond the tail in flight, a feature sometimes difficult to see," she said. "Pelicans often migrate in flocks of 20 or more."

Snow geese are also white with black wingtips, but they are smaller than whoopers, and their short legs don't extend beyond their tail during flights. Snow geese usually travel in large flocks.

"Whooping cranes migrate during the day, usually in groups of three to seven birds, unlike larger flocks of gray sandhill cranes that also travel through South Dakota," Stukel said. "Unless you're an experienced bird watcher, identifying birds in flight is difficult."

Whooping cranes are most likely to be seen in central South Dakota on shallow wetlands associated with cropland or pasture.

"A day's flight may end in midafternoon or later, when whoopers feed and rest before roosting for the night," Stukel said. "Reliable sightings help state and federal agencies protect this endangered species from potentially hazardous situations."

To provide sighting details or to obtain further information, contact the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, 605-773-3381, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 605-224-8693, or the South Dakota Birding Hotline, 605-773-6460.

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