The Whooping Crane

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Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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[Whooping Crane. ! ENDANGERED. !]

[Grus americana.]


The variegated foliage of the woods indicates that the latter days of October have arrived; gloomy clouds spread over the heavens; the fierce blasts of the north, as if glad to escape from the dreary regions of their nativity, sport in dreadful revelry among the forests and glades. Showers of sleet and snow descend at intervals, and the careful husbandman gathers his flocks, to drive them to a place of shelter. The traveller gladly accepts the welcome of the forester, and as he seats himself by the blazing fire, looks with pleasure on the spinning-wheels of the industrious inmates. The lumberer prepares to set out on his long voyage, the trapper seeks the retreats of the industrious beaver, and the red Indian is making arrangements for his winter hunts. The Ducks and Geese have already reached the waters of the western ponds; here a Swan or two is seen following in their train, and as the observer of nature stands watching the appearances and events of this season of change, he hears from on high the notes of the swiftly travelling but unseen Whooping Crane. Suddenly the turbid atmosphere clears, and now he can perceive the passing birds. Gradually they descend, dress their extended lines, and prepare to alight on the earth. With necks outstretched, and long bony legs extended behind, they proceed, supported by wings white as the snow but tipped with jet, until arriving over the great savannah they wheel their circling flight, and slowly approach the ground, on which with half-closed wings, and outstretched feet they alight, running along for a few steps to break the force of their descent.

Reader, see the majestic bird shake its feathers, and again arrange them in order. Proud of its beautiful form, and prouder still of its power of flight, it stalks over the withering grasses with all the majesty of a gallant chief. With long and measured steps he moves along, his head erect, his eye glistening with delight. His great journey is accomplished, and being well acquainted with a country which has often been visited by him, he at once commences bis winter avocations.

The Whooping Crane reaches the Western Country about the middle of October, or the beginning of November, in flocks of twenty or thirty individuals, sometimes of twice or thrice that number; the young by themselves, but closely followed by their parents. They spread from Illinois over Kentucky, and all the intermediate States, until they reach the Carolinas on the southern coast, the Floridas, Louisiana, and the countries bordering on Mexico, in all of which they spend the winter, seldom returning northward until about the middle of April, or towards the beginning of May. They are seen on the edges of large ponds supplied with rank herbage, on fields or savannahs, now in swampy woods, and again on extensive marshes. The interior of the country, and the neighbourhood of the sea shores, suit them equally well, so long as the temperature is sufficiently high. In the Middle States, it is very seldom indeed that they are seen; and to the eastward of these countries they are unknown; for all their migrations are performed far inland, and thus they leave and return to the northern retreats where, it is said, they breed and spend the summer. While migrating they appear to travel both by night and by day, and I have frequently heard them at the former, and seen them at the latter time, as they were proceeding toward their destination. Whether the weather be calm or tempestuous, it makes no difference to them, their power of flight being such as to render them regardless of the winds. Nay, I have observed them urging their way during very heavy gales, shifting from high to low in the air with remarkable dexterity. The members of a flock sometimes arrange themselves in the form of an acute-angled triangle; sometimes they move in a long line; again they mingle together without order, or form an extended front; but in whatever manner they advance, each bird sounds bis loud note in succession, and on all occasions of alarm these birds manifest the same habit.

I had, in 1810, the gratification of taking ALEXANDER WILSON to some ponds within a few miles of Louisville, and of shewing him many birds of this species, of which he had not previously seen any other than stuffed specimens. I told him that the white birds were the adults, and that the grey ones were the young. WILSON, in his article on the Whooping Crane, has alluded to this, but, as on other occasions, has not informed his readers whence the information came.

Both old and young may be seen digging through the mud before the rains have begun to cover the shallow ponds with water, for during summer they become almost dry. The birds work very assiduously with their bills, and succeed in uncovering the large roots of the great water-lily, which often run to a depth of two or three feet. Several Cranes are seen in the same hole, tugging at roots and other substances, until they reach the object of their desire, which they greedily devour. While thus engaged, they are easily approached; for if their heads are bent down they cannot see you, and until they raise themselves again, to take notice of what may be going on around the place, you may advance so as to get within shot. While I watched them at this work, they were perfectly silent; and as I lay concealed behind a large cypress tree, within thirty paces of a flock, thus buried, as it were, in the great holes they had formed, so as to put me in mind of a parcel of hogs or bears at their wallowing spots, I could plainly see the colour of their eyes, which is brown in the young, and yellow in the adult. After observing them as long as I wished, I whistled, on which they all at once raised their heads to see what the matter might be. I had so fair an opportunity that I could not resist the temptation, especially as several of the birds had their necks so close together that I felt confident I must kill more than one of them. Accordingly, just as their last croaking notes were heard, and I saw them preparing to set to work again, I fired. Only two flew up, to my surprise. They came down the pond towards me, and my next shot brought them to the ground. On walking to the hole, I found that I had disabled seven in all. Those which were in different holes farther off, all flew away, uttering loud cries, and did not return that afternoon. In the course of a week these birds turned up the earth, and dug holes all over the dry parts of the ponds. As soon as heavy rains fill the pools, the Cranes abandon them, and resort to other places.

The Sand-hill Cranes resort at times to the fields, in which corn, peas, and sweet potatoes have been planted, as well as to the cotton plantations. They feed on the grains and peas, dig up the potatoes, which they devour with remarkable greediness; and in the wet fields seize on water insects, toads and frogs, but never, I believe, on fishes.

This species feeds only during the day. Besides the objects which I have already mentioned, it now and then swallows a mole or a meadow-mouse, and not unfrequently, I think, snakes of considerable length. I opened one that had a garter-snake, more than fifteen inches long, in its stomach.

The wariness of this species is so remarkable, that it takes all the cunning and care of an Indian hunter to approach it at times, especially in the case of an old bird. The acuteness of their sight and hearing is quite wonderful. If they perceive a man approaching, even at the distance of a quarter of a mile, they are sure to take to wing. Should you accidentally tread on a stick and break it, or suddenly cock your gun, all the birds in the flock raise their heads and emit a cry. Shut the gate of a field after you, and from that moment they all watch your motions. To attempt to crawl towards them, even among long grass, after such an intimation, would be useless; and unless you lie in wait for them, and be careful to maintain a perfect silence, or may have the cover of some large trees, heaps of brushwood, or fallen logs, you may as well stay at home. They generally see you long before you perceive them, and so long as they are aware that you have not observed them, they remain silent; but the moment that, by some inadvertency, you disclose to them your sense of their presence, some of them sound an alarm. For my part, reader, I would as soon undertake to catch a deer by fair running, as to shoot a Sand-hill Crane that had observed me. Sometimes, indeed, towards the approach of spring, when they are ready to depart for their breeding grounds, the voice of one will startle and urge to flight all within a mile of the spot. When this happens, all the birds around join into a great flock, gradually rise in a spiral manner, ascend to a vast height, and sail off in a straight course.

When wounded, these birds cannot be approached without caution, as their powerful bill is capable of inflicting a severe wound. Knowing this as I do, I would counsel any sportsman not to leave his gun behind, while pursuing a wounded Crane.

While in the Floridas, I saw only a few of these birds alive, but many which had been shot by the Spaniards and Indians, for the sake of their flesh and beautiful feathers, of which latter they make fans and fly-brushes. None of these birds remain there during summer; and WILLIAM BARTRAM, when speaking of this species, must have mistaken the Wood This for it.

The young are considerably more numerous than the old white birds; and this circumstance has probably led to the belief among naturalists that the former constitute a distinct species, to which the name of Canada Crane, Grus canadensis, has been given. This, however, I hope, I shall be able to clear up to your satisfaction. In the mean time, I shall continue my remarks.

According to circumstances, this species roosts either on the ground or on high trees. In the latter case, they leave their feeding-ground about an hour before sun-set, and going off in silence, proceed towards the interior of high land forests, where they alight on the largest branches of lofty trees, six or seven settling on the same branch. For half an hour or so, they usually dress their plumage, standing erect: but afterwards they crouch in the manner of Wild Turkeys. In this situation they are sometimes shot by moonlight. Those which resort to plantations, situated in the vicinity of large marshes, covered with tall grasses, cat's tails, and other plants, spend the night on some hillock, standing on one leg, the other being drawn under the body, whilst the head is thrust beneath the broad feathers of the shoulder. In returning towards the feeding grounds, they all emit their usual note, but in a very low undertone, leaving their roost at an earlier or later hour, according to the state of the weather. When it is cold and clear, they start very early; but when warm and rainy, not until late in the morning. Their motions toward night are determined by the same circumstances. They rise easily from the ground after running a few steps, fly low for thirty or forty yards, then rise in circles, crossing each other in their windings, like Vultures, Ibises, and some other birds. If startled or shot at, they utter loud and piercing cries. These cries, which I cannot compare to the sounds of any instrument known to me, I have heard at the distance of three miles, at the approach of spring, when the males were paying their addresses to the females, or fighting among themselves. They may be in some degree represented by the syllables kewrr, kewrr, kewrooh; and strange and uncouth as they are, they have always sounded delightful in my ear.

In December 1833, I sent my son to Spring Island, on the coast of Georgia, to which these birds are in the habit of resorting every winter. Mr. HAMMOND, the proprietor of this island, treated him with all the hospitality for which the southern planters are celebrated. The Cranes, which were plentiful, resorted to the sweet potato fields, digging up their produce as expertly as a troop of negroes. They walked carefully over the little heaps, probed them in various parts in the manner of Woodcocks or Snipe, and whenever they hit upon a potato, removed the soil, took out the root, and devoured it in rather small pieces. In this manner they would search over the whole field, which was two miles in length, and rather more than a quarter of a mile in breadth, gleaning all the potatoes that had escaped the gatherers. They were so shy, however, that notwithstanding all the endeavours of my son, who is a good hand at getting in upon, as well as a good shot, he only killed a young one, which was evidently of that year's brood, it being yet almost reddish-brown, the long feathers of the rump just beginning to shew, and the head yet covered with hair-like feathers to the mandible, and merely shewing between them the wrinkled akin so conspicuous in the old birds. The specimen procured on Spring Island was carefully examined and described, and the skin is now in the British Museum in London. Its flesh was tender and juicy, of a colour resembling that of young venison, and afforded excellent eating. This I have always found to be the case with young birds of this species, so long as they are in their brown livery, and even when they have begun to be patched with white; but in old birds the flesh becomes very dark, tough and unfit for the table, although the Seminole Indians shoot them on all occasions for food.

In captivity the Whooping Crane becomes extremely gentle, and feeds freely on grain and other vegetable substances. A Mr. MAGWOOD, residing near Charleston, in South Carolina, kept one for some time, feeding it on maize. It accidentally wounded one of its feet on the shell of an oyster, and, although the greatest care was taken of it, died after lingering some weeks. Having myself kept one alive, I will give you an account of its habits.

It was nearly full-grown when I obtained it, and its plumage was changing from greyish-brown to white. I received it as a present from Captain CLACK of the United States Navy, commander of the Erie sloop of war. It had been wounded in the wing, on the coast of Florida, but the fractured limb had been amputated and soon healed. During a voyage of three months, it became very gentle, and was a great favourite with the sailors. I Placed it in a yard, in company with a beautiful Snow Goose. This was at Boston. It was so gentle as to suffer me to caress it with the hand, and was extremely fond of searching for worms and grubs about the wood pile, probing every hole it saw with as much care and dexterity as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It also watched with all the patience of a cat the motions of some mice which had burrows near the same spot, killed them with a single blow, and swallowed them entire, one after another, until they were extirpated. I fed it on corn and garbage from the kitchen, to which were added bits of bread and cheese, as well as some apples. It would pick up the straws intended to keep its feet from being soiled, and arrange them round its body, as if intent on forming a nest. For hours at a time, it would stand resting on one foot in a very graceful posture; but what appeared to me very curious was, that it had a favourite leg for this purpose; and in fact none of my family ever found it standing on the other, although it is probable that this happened in consequence of the mutilation of the wing, the leg employed being that of the injured side. The stump of its amputated wing appeared to be a constant source of trouble, particularly at the approach of the winter: it would dress the feathers about it, and cover it with so much care, that I really felt for the poor fellow. When the weather became intensely cold, it regularly retired at the approach of night under a covered passage, where it spent the hours of darkness; but it always repaired to this place with marked reluctance, and never until all was quiet and nearly dark, and it came out, even when the snow lay deep on the ground, at the first appearance of day. Now and then it would take a run, extend its only wing, and, uttering a loud cry, leap several times in the air, as if anxious to return to its haunts. At other tunes it would look upwards, cry aloud as if calling to some acquaintance passing high in the air, and again use its ordinary note whenever its companion the Snow Goose sent forth her own signals. It seldom swallowed its food without first carrying it to the water, arid dipping it several times, and now and then it would walk many yards for that express purpose. Although the winter was severe, the thermometer some mornings standing as low as 100, the bird fattened and looked extremely well. So strong was the natural suspicion of this bird, that I frequently saw it approach some cabbage leaves with measured steps, look at each sideways before it would touch one of them, and after all, if it by accident tossed the leaf into the air when attempting to break it to pieces, it would run off as if some dreaded enemy were at hand.

The trachea of this bird confirms my opinion that the Canada Crane and the Whooping Crane are merely the same species in different states of plumage, or in other words, at different ages; and, in truth, the differences are not greater than those exhibited by many other birds, both aquatic and terrestrial. In illustration of this subject I might adduce Ibises, Herons, Divers, and Grebes; but this is quite unnecessary.

In reading the accounts given of the Canada Crane of authors, I find no description of its manner of breeding. In the Fauna Boreali-Americana of Mr. SWAINSON and Dr. RICHARDSON, the eggs of both are described, and in NUTTALL'S Manual those of the Whooping Crane also; but in these works the account given of the birds and of their eggs is such, that one might even, from comparing the descriptions, suppose them to be of the same species. I have never had the satisfaction of finding any of the breeding-places of the Whooping Crane; but I well know that many birds breed long before they have attained their full plumage. The supposed new species of Heron described under the name of Ardea Pealii, by my excellent friend Prince CHARLES BONAPARTE, breeds as the White-headed Eagle sometimes does, the immature bird in a snow-white dress, the adult in purple and greyish-blue plumage. The young of Ardea coerulea were for some time considered to form a distinct species, they being white also, then blue and white, and finally dark blue. But the most remarkable instance of change of plumage in the Waders is exhibited in the Scarlet Ibis. My humble opinion is, that unless in cases where birds are at first of one colour, and that colour remains ever after, little dependence can be placed on the tints of the plumage as a specific character.

On looking over my notes, I find that I have omitted to inform you that the extraordinary strength of the thighs, legs, and feet of the Whooping Crane, tends greatly to make it more terrestrial than the Herons; and that the great size of their nostrils, which so much resemble those of the Vultures, is well adapted to keep the inner parts of the organ from the damp earth and other matters with which they are so often in contact, while searching in the round or mud for roots and other vegetable substances, on which the bird principally feeds. I am convinced also, that this species does not attain its full size or perfect plumage until it is four or five years old. The beauty of the plumage may be improved in brilliancy during the breeding season by a greater brightness in the colour of the bill, as in the Booby Gannet and White Ibis, as well as in the redness of the fleshy parts of the head.

The measurements of the adult bird of my plate, drawn at New Orleans, in the month of April, were as follows:--Length from tip of bill to end of claws, 5 feet 5 inches; to end of tail, 4 feet 6 inches; the drooping feathers 1 foot beyond; alar extent 7 feet 8 inches; length of wing 22 inches; naked part of thigh 5 inches; tarsus 11 1/4 inches; length of middle toe 4 1/4, of its claw 3/4.

The measurements of the specimen kept at Boston:--Length from tip of bill to end of tail, 3 feet 9 inches; to end of claws, 4 feet 6 inches; tarsus 8 inches; naked part of thigh 3 1/2. The elongated inner secondaries equalled the tail. The weight was 9 lbs. 141 oz.

Measurements of that killed on Spring Island:--Length 4 feet 4 1/2 inches, the claws being 7 inches beyond the tail, so that the length from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail was 3 feet 9 1/2 inches; alar extent 5 feet 8 inches. Weight 8 3/4 lbs.

In the Museum of the University of Edinburgh, there is a specimen of still smaller size.

My friend JOHN BACHMAN, in a note addressed to me, says, "I saw a pair of tame birds of this species, which, as they advanced in age, changed their colours from grey to white."

WHOOPING CRANE, Ardea Americana, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vii. p. 20.
GRUS AMERICANA, Bonap. Syn., p. 302.
GRUS AMERICANA, Whooping Crane, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 372. Adult.
GRUS CANADENSIS, Brown Crane, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.,p. 273.
WHOOPING CRANE, Grus Americana, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 34. Adult.
BROWN CRANE, Grus canadensis, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 38. Young.

WHOOPING CRANE, Grus Americana, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 202, Adult;p. 441, Young.

Male 54, 92.

From Texas to North Carolina during autumn and winter, and across to the Rocky Mountains. Breeds from Upper California northward to the Arctic regions, from which it removes southward early in autumn. Abundant in Georgia and Florida, and from thence to Texas.

Adult Male.

Bill long, straight, rather slender, but strong, compressed, pointed. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly straight, a little concave at the middle, slightly declinate toward the tip, the ridge flat and rather broad as far as the middle, the sides sloping, towards the end convex, with a wide groove filled by a soft membrane, and extending nearly two-thirds of its length, the edges sharp but thick for two-thirds of its length, and very slightly serrated. Nostrils lateral, placed at about a third of the length of the bill from its base, oblong, large, pervious. Lower mandible with the angle narrow and very long, the sides perpendicular at the base, the edges straight and sharp.

Head small, compressed. Eyes of moderate size. Neck very long. Body rather slender. Feet very long; tibia long, bare to a large extent, and covered with transverse series of rectangular scales; tarsus very long, rather compressed, covered anteriorly with numerous oblique scutella, posteriorly with large, and laterally with small scales; toes rather small; the first very small, second and fourth nearly equal, third considerably longer, the third and fourth connected at the base by a web of considerable size, all marginate, covered above with numerous narrow scutella, beneath broad, flattened, and granulate; claws of moderate size, strong, considerably curved, rather compressed, that of hind toe much smaller, second and third largest, the latter with a groove on its inner edge.

Fore and upper part of head to the occiput papillar, and covered only with small hairs, as are the sides of the head. The plumage in general is soft, but distinctly imbricated; the feathers rounded, those of the neck short. Wings ample; the second primary longest, third and fourth nearly as long, first longer than fifth; inner secondaries and their coverts curved downwards, forming a beautiful bunch of loosely barbed feathers. Tail short, rounded, of twelve broad rounded feathers.

Bill dusky, towards the base yellow. Iris yellow. Bare part of head carmine, with the hairs black. Feet black. The plumage is pure white, excepting the alula, primaries, and primary coverts, which are brownish-black.

Length to end of tail 54 inches; to end of wings 53, to end of claws 65; extent of wings 92; wing from flexure 22 1/2; tail 7; bill along the ridge 5 4/12, along the edge of the lower mandible 5 4/12, bare part of tibia 5; tarsus 11 1/4; middle toe 4 1/4, its claw 3/4.

The young after its first autumnal moult has the sides of the head feathered behind the eye, and beneath to the base of the lower mandible; the curved secondaries and their coverts are tapering and elongated, but not nearly so much developed as in the old birds. The skin of the head is red; the bill brownish-black, as are the feet. Chin and sides of the head greyish-white. The plumage generally is bluish-grey, but the feathers are largely tipped and margined with yellowish-brown; the primary quills and their coverts dark brown towards the end, but with brownish-white shafts; the abdomen pure greyish-blue.

As the bird advances in age, the yellowish-brown disappears, and the general colour of the plumage becomes pure bluish-grey, which ultimately changes to white.

The trachea, which is 13 inches long to its entrance between the crura of the furcula, passes into a cavity in the sternum, where it curves so as to describe two-thirds of a circle, returns on the right side, and enters the thorax by curving backwards. The cavity in the sternum is 2 inches long, with an equal depth, and a breadth of 3/4 inch. The ridge of the keel is at its fore part 3/4 in breadth, and contracts to 1/2 inch at its junction with the angle of the furcula, which is continuous with it. The gizzard is of moderate size; the intestine, which is thin and small, measures 5 feet in length. Boston specimen.

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