Whooping cranes, the tallest bird in North America, are an endangered species. Their breeding grounds are found in Wood Buffalo National Park near Fort Smith; their wintering grounds are on the gulf coast of Texas at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Named for its distinct whooping sound and call, the whooping crane is a marvel of evolution. It’s developed an energy-efficient system of spiralling up thermals and gliding to fly non-stop for long distances to cover the long migration route between Texas and Fort Smith.
Whoopers are highly social animals: they perform elaborate courtship rituals involving whooping and dancing. A nesting whooper bugles loud and clear to advertise its breeding territory to other whooping cranes. Adults dote on and defend their chicks, and use a strange growling sound to communicate with them.
Whoopers are underdogs: although they are among the oldest species on the planet, they now face incredible challenges and threats to their survival. Human activities (habitat destruction, hunting and disturbance) reduced the wild population to a mere 16 birds before conservation activities began in 1939. Today, the population is recovering, but whoopers remain endangered by development on their migration route and near their wintering grounds.
You can learn more about whooping cranes by visiting the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre in Fort Smith. Although ground access to the nesting area is restricted, local air charter companies provide flight tours while observing strict altitude limits.