Whooping Crane adult and fledgling in flight. Photo courtesy of Hillary Thompson (International Crane Foundation).
Illinois’ Cranes: A storied past and a hopeful future
Illinois, known for its vast prairies, fertile soils and diverse species, can add one more distinction to this ever-growing list—cranes. Once a rarity, large flocks of sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) can be found in northern Illinois year-round, and whooping cranes (Grus americana) are seasonal migrants and occasional wintering residents of Illinois. While sandhill cranes and whooping cranes are closely related and share many similar features, including long beaks, necks, and legs, they also have distinct differences. The sandhill crane stands at 4 feet tall, and has a featherless red patch on its head, a white cheek, an amber eye, and a gray-brown plumage throughout its neck, body, and wings. Contrastingly, whooping cranes stand at 5 feet tall, have a featherless red patch on the crown of their head, a bright yellow eye, a black mustache on their cheeks, and white feathers on their neck, body, and wings, save the wingtips, which are a prominent black. In flight, both sandhill cranes and whooping cranes will fly with their long neck outstretched in front of them and their long legs trailing behind them.
Throughout the summer and early fall months whooping cranes and the majority of sandhill cranes in the eastern United States are north of Illinois and on their breeding grounds in Wisconsin. Around mid-October cranes will begin their migration south for the winter. In northern Illinois, crane migration will peak in November and conclude in mid-December. Sandhill cranes and whooping cranes will migrate through central Illinois or northeastern Illinois along the shores of Lake Michigan, sometimes passing right through downtown Chicago. These cranes are on their way to their wintering habitats in northern Alabama, western Indiana, and for a small number of whooping cranes, east-central Illinois. One of the largest and closest wintering grounds for sandhill cranes and whooping cranes is just 80 miles outside of Chicago at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Medaryville, Indiana.
This fall you can expect to see around 75 whooping cranes pass through Illinois and approximately 40,000 to 50,000 sandhill cranes. Both populations of cranes are continuing to grow in the Midwest and this growth is documented by dedicated volunteers involved in the annual Midwest Crane Count. Last year, crane counters in northern Illinois spotted 478 sandhill cranes and 3 whooping cranes. The most populous counties for cranes were McHenry, Winnebago, Stephenson, Kane and Lake.
The large number of cranes we see in the Midwest today, unfortunately, was not always the case. Prior to European expansion, whooping cranes and sandhill cranes could be found throughout the fertile prairies and wetlands of North America. By the 1940s, whooping cranes faced near extinction when only 20 individuals remained in North America, and sandhill cranes were nearly extirpated from the Midwest. This drastic decline was largely a result of unregulated hunting, feather collecting, egg collecting and extensive habitat loss.
Whooping cranes and sandhill cranes are both dependent on wetland habitats to provide food, shelter and water. As midwestern states converted wetland acreage into alternative landscapes, cranes were pushed out. In Illinois alone, more than 90 percent of the state’s historic wetland acreage has been lost. However, since the 1940s, laws and regulations have been put in place to protect wild spaces and species, many of which benefit sandhill cranes and whooping cranes. These include the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), the Duck Stamp Act (1934), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).
Today, sandhill cranes are a prominent fixture on the northern Illinois landscape. The conservation success of sandhill cranes is due in part to the aforementioned protections as well as the local restoration of wetlands, marshes and prairies—the preferred nesting and breeding habitat of these birds. Additionally, the growth of the sandhill crane population can be credited to their adaptation and use of human-dominated landscapes. In northern Illinois, sandhill cranes can be spotted in prairies, wetlands, agricultural fields, parks, subdivisions and even cities. In recent years, the breeding range of sandhill cranes has also expanded southwards into northern Illinois, as documented by the hatching of a sandhill crane colt at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Will County) in 2022.
Whooping cranes, on the other hand, remain relatively rare in Illinois and they have experienced slower growth. This is in part because whooping cranes are recovering from much smaller numbers, but also because they are less adapted to using human-dominated landscapes and are much more wetland dependent than sandhill cranes. Until 2001, whooping cranes were not found in Illinois. Not until the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) was established did whooping cranes return to the Midwest. The EMP is a completely reintroduced experimental migratory population of whooping cranes, with the first birds released in the Midwest in 2001. In 2006, the first wild chick in the EMP hatched, and in 2022 the population welcomed 14 wild hatched chicks. In addition to wild hatches, the International Crane Foundation and crane conservation partners are continuing to release whooping cranes into this population each year. The whooping crane is still federally endangered and the EMP is not yet at the point of being self-sustaining, but its steady growth points toward a promising future for whooping cranes in Illinois.
Seeing a whooping crane or a sandhill crane in Illinois is a sign that conservation measures are working. We encourage you to keep your eyes on the sky this fall and see if you can spot a migrating crane. When looking for cranes please keep these crane-safe behaviors in mind:
- Give cranes their space and observe their behaviors. If their head is up and their wings are back, they are asking you to take a step back.
- When viewing cranes, remember to respect private property, park in designated parking areas and stay on the trail.
- Report your sightings of banded cranes to bandedcranes.org. Almost all whooping cranes migrating through Illinois will be banded and their bands will be red, white and/or green.
- If you observe any harassment or poaching of cranes, please report this to the Target Illinois Poachers Hotline at 1-877-2DNRLAW (1-877-236-7529).
- Head to savingcranes.org if you would like to learn more about cranes in your community and around the world, and if you would like to get involved in the Midwest Crane Count. The next annual Midwest Crane Count will be held on April 15, 2023, from 5:30-7:30 a.m.
Stephanie M. Schmidt is the Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator for the International Crane Foundation. She has a degree in Zoology and Environmental Studies (B.S.) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (M.S.) from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where she studied the impacts of seasonal marsh dewatering on marsh bird nesting success at Emiquon Preserve.