NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — A group of people gathered near the Golden Spike Tower on Sunday spotted a bird so rare that only about 450 exist in the world: a whooping crane.
Whooping cranes tend to migrate north later than sandhill cranes. But a lone bird may end up hanging out with the sandhill cranes, as they eat and nest together, said Julie Geiser, public information officer for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
While Geiser said sandhill cranes usually travel in a “family group,” the groups usually see a lone whooping crane as “just another crane,” said Joel Jorgensen, nongame bird program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks.
Because of the whooping crane’s federal and state endangered status, Geiser and Jorgensen emphasized the importance of not harassing the bird.
“If people see this bird, they will hopefully stay in their vehicle,” Jorgensen said.
If you approach a bird with a camera and it starts walking away, “you should just go back to your vehicle,” Jorgensen said. “You’re not going to get a better picture anyway. It’s best to use your vehicle as a blind.”
Jorgensen described whooping cranes as “very wary birds.”
“They’ve always got to be aware of predators wherever they are,” he said.
While taking a bird census presents challenges, Jorgensen said, last winter scientists estimated that about 450 whooping cranes exist in the world. In some areas, experts are “trying to get other populations up and going,” he said.
That includes introducing whooping cranes to one another to encourage mating
In the early 20th century, Jorgensen said, the number of whooping cranes was down to 15 or 16 , “right on the cusp of going extinct.”
As with many other species, the reason for near-extinction was hunting.
“In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people shot everything,” Jorgensen said. The whooping cranes “were prized.”
Jorgensen said another whooping crane has been “hanging out” near Alda since early February. Whooping cranes spotted in the area migrate from the Gulf Coast of Texas to northeast Alberta in Canada, he said.
“Unfortunately,” Jorgensen said, the loner status may make the whooping crane “biologically irrelevant.”
Jorgensen said the whooping crane may not see another crane of its kind to mate with, and while interspecies mating exists among some birds, whooping cranes and sandhill cranes are “different enough” that “it’s not likely to happen,” Jorgensen said.
The sandhill cranes that migrate through Nebraska are 3 to 4 feet tall, but a whooping crane stands 4 to 5 feet tall, Jorgensen said.
Geiser said it was “cool to see that many people interested” in the bird.
“When you get to see one, it’s a pretty cool sighting,” she said. “Not everyone gets to see a whooping crane.”
When one is spotted in an area field, “you can’t miss it,” she said.