Guest Post by Jessie Taylor, International Crane Foundation
From November to March, North Alabama is home to one of the rarest birds in North America, the endangered whooping crane. Prior to the 1950s, only 20 whooping cranes remained in the wild. Whooping cranes were almost lost forever as a result of widespread habitat loss, unregulated hunting, and the millinery trade. However, because of the incredible conservation efforts by the International Crane Foundation and other conservation organizations, whooping cranes have made a remarkable comeback. There are now over 800 whooping cranes in the world and their numbers are continuing to grow.
The population of whooping cranes that winters in Alabama each year is the Eastern Migratory Population. First established in 2001, there are currently 76 individuals in this population, and their flyway spans from Wisconsin to Alabama. Prior to 2001, whooping cranes were not found in the eastern United States and it wasn’t until 2011 that whooping cranes consistently returned to North Alabama each year. The presence of whooping cranes in our state has encouraged people of all ages to get out into nature to try and catch a glimpse of this rare and endangered species, and we urge you to do so as well!
Whooping cranes are North America’s tallest flying bird standing at 5 feet tall. They have white feathers throughout their body and wings with the exception of black wingtips, a red patch on their forehead, and a black, mustache-like mask on their cheeks. Throughout their range, whooping cranes are habitat specialists and wetlands provide them with food, water, and protection from predators while foraging and roosting. In addition to wetlands, whooping cranes will also use larger agricultural fields for daytime foraging.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, located in Decatur, Alabama, has an abundance of protected wetland habitat and agricultural fields. These spaces are attractive to wintering whooping cranes because water level management to retain inundated marsh and cooperative farming agreements to produce millet and corn on refuge property give cranes the habitat and food they need while wintering. As a result, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is the best place in Alabama to view the endangered whooping crane and its more common relative, the sandhill crane. On average, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge hosts about 20,000 sandhill cranes and 18 whooping cranes each year.
In addition to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, North Alabama has hundreds of miles of trails to encourage people to get outside to see whooping cranes and explore the natural beauty and biodiversity Alabama has to offer. When viewing wildlife, please remember to be respectful and keep a distance of at least 200 yards, stay on designated trails, and leave no trace. This ensures the safety of all wildlife, including whooping cranes, a valuable resource in our state.
To celebrate the cranes in Alabama, we invite you to the Festival of the Cranes! Festival of the Cranes will be held January 13-15, 2023. This free, family-friendly festival celebrates North Alabama’s cranes and provides opportunities for people to visit the refuge to see the cranes in their natural environment. The festival will take place in downtown Decatur, Alabama due to ongoing renovations at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center. However, the refuge’s observation building and new photo blind will be open for crane viewing.
For more information about “Festival of the Cranes,” please visit friendsofwheelernwr.org/events.
Featured Image – photo credit: George Lee