Having rebounded from near-extinction, whooping cranes -- known as the tallest of North American birds -- remain a top priority for conservationists. That's why the Father Hupp Wildlife Management Area in Thayer County, Nebraska, decided to temporarily close when six whooping cranes arrived in the area.

Jerry Kane, spokesman for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said the closure will be lifted when the cranes leave, adding that closing the wildlife area follows the commission's standard procedure for protecting whooping cranes. Every fall and spring whooping cranes pass through Nebraska during their migration between wintering sites along the Texas coast and breeding areas in northern Alberta.

Overhunting and poaching are among the many factors that contributed to the bird's original decline. During the early 1940's only 20 whooping cranes remained in the wild. However, populations have steadily increased to about 300 individuals today. This population is known as the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock, and represents the only wild, self-sustaining group of whooping cranes. The animals are protected by both the federal Endangered Species Act and the Nebraska Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.

Whooping cranes are named after their distinctive "whooping" calls, which the animals specifically use to advertise breeding territories. During early spring courtships, one may even hear a pair of birds performing a duet, or unison call. When mating, the birds tend to build their nests in marshes or shallow ponds where there is a dense surrounding of vegetation. Each female crane generally produces two eggs and both parents share responsibilities during the month-long incubation period. After hatching, the newborns remain flightless and dependent on their parents for food and protection. It is not until late September that the young birds are ready to test out their new wings for their 4000 km migration to Texas.

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