Smithsonian zoo welcomes new whooping crane

(Photo: Smithsonian National Zoo)

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo proudly announced a new inhabitant Tuesday: An 11-year-old whooping crane named Rocky now calls the Zoo home.

The majestic bird stands at 5 feet and has a plume of white feathers, save for a patch of red and black feathers on his face. However, there is one characteristic of his species Rocky lacks: the loud “whoop” call these birds are named for. Rocky is mute.

“We don’t know why Rocky is mute,” says Sara Hallager, biologist at the Zoo’s Bird House. “The reason behind his silence is a mystery known only to him.”

Rocky hails from Florida and belongs to one of only two crane species native to the United States. The whooping crane is North America’s tallest bird. Only eight other U.S. zoos exhibit these birds, the Smithsonian said.

“Although most people have heard of whooping cranes, very few have had the privilege of seeing one in person,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. “We are thrilled to have Rocky here as an ambassador for his species.”

It’s been 88 years since the Smithsonian Zoo has had one of these birds in its exhibit. The Zoo’s first crane, caught in the wild, arrived in 1897. Its last, a female, died in 1923.

By 1938, hunting and agricultural expansion had decimated wild whooping crane populations to only about 21 individuals. Zoos, research centers and nature preserves bred the birds by matching individual birds to stabilize populations.

The population has increased but the birds are still considered endangered. According to a 2010 census, 407 whooping cranes now live in breeding centers and protected nature reserves in the eastern and mid-western United States and Canada. Another 167 individuals are in human care. The cranes are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Visitors can see Rocky in the “Crane Run” exhibit outside of the Bird House. You can also see pictures of Rocky on the Smithsonian National Zoo's Flickr page.