A few key traits can help distinguish the endangered whooping crane and American white pelican. The first is one of the rarest birds in the nation while the second is a common winter visitor to our state.
Find tips for identifying Oklahoma’s look-alike species in our video series on YouTube.
Similarities: The whooping crane and American white pelican are both large, white-bodied birds with black wingtips. Both are migratory, and both are often found near water while in Oklahoma.
Differences: Body shape is perhaps the key distinguishing feature for whooping cranes and American white pelicans. The whooping crane is one of the tallest birds in North America, and flies with its long neck and legs extended while in flight. Adults have a red crown and facial patches, and juveniles can have cinnamon and white mottled plumage. Though the cranes may often stopover at lakes and wetlands while flying between coastal Texas and Canada, they may also visit ag fields and feed on fallen grain and insects. Pelicans, known for their large scooping bill, have relatively short legs and may spend the entire winter in Oklahoma. This waterbird also has a shorter neck than cranes and holds it in an “s” curve while in flight. Flocks of pelicans often can be identified by a distance because of their unique circular flights.
If you see a crane or pelican while exploring Outdoor Oklahoma, consider sharing the sighting on free nature platforms like eBird and iNaturalist. Adding a photo to your observation can allow others to help confirm the identification. The Wildlife Department also collects whooping crane sightings at wildlifedepartment.com.