ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY for Whooping Crane Day: Audubon’s “Hooping Cranes”

Today is #WhoopingCraneDay!

Infographic via Peppermint Narwhal Creative

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is an endemic North American species that is the continent’s tallest native bird. It is also one of our flagship conservation success stories, having very nearly gone extinct in the early 20th century. Once thought to have numbered at least 10,000 birds, the population had dwindled to only 15 in 1941 after centuries of overhunting and habitat destruction. However, thanks to an innovative conservation program, that number has increased to 831 as of 2023!

Infographic via International Crane Foundation

Audubon’s “Hooping Cranes”

Every bird in the 435 plates that comprise John James Audubon’s The Birds of America was illustrated life-size. This was achieved using “double elephant folio” paper, the largest sheets available at the time. Even with this gigantic paper, however, Audubon often had to cheat a bit with the biggest birds and portray them in creatively contorted poses. For the Whooping Crane — or, as it was known then, the Hooping Crane — this meant illustrating the bird crouched over with its neck down and legs bent, as seen below.

The first image is Audubon’s original watercolor study, the second is the published print:

1. John James Audubon (1785–1851)
[W]hooping Crane (Grus americana), Study for Havell pl. 226, 1821–22; 1829–33
Watercolor, oil, gouache, graphite, white lead pigment, black ink, and pastel with selective glazing on paper, laid on Japanese paper; 37 1/4 x 25 3/4 in. (94.6 x 65.4 cm)
New York Historical Society
2. Robert Havell, Jr. (1793-1878), after John James Audubon
“Hooping Crane,” 1834
The Birds of America: Plate CCXXVI
hand-colored engraving and aquatint on Whatman wove paper
plate: 97 x 65.5 cm (38 3/16 x 25 13/16 in.)
sheet: 100.3 x 67.7 cm (39 1/2 x 26 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art 1945.8.226

There is also a second “Hooping Crane” plate in Audubon’s Birds of America, originally identified as a juvenile specimen. Audubon depicted it “in the interior of the Floridas with sand hills in the distance,” providing a big clue to its true identity. Of course, we now know this bird was, in fact, the only other crane species native to North America: the Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis). Fortunately, this second species is far more secure than its still-endangered cousin, with an abundant population and broader continental range that even crosses over into northeastern Siberia.

2. Robert Havell, Jr. (1793-1878), after John James Audubon
“Hooping Crane” [Sandhill Crane], 1835
The Birds of America: Plate CCLXI
hand-colored engraving and aquatint on Whatman wove paper
plate: 97 x 65.5 cm (38 3/16 x 25 13/16 in.)
sheet: 100.3 x 67.7 cm (39 1/2 x 26 5/8 in.)

National Gallery of Art 1945.8.261

Bonus book recommendations:

Audubon as Artist: A New Look at The Birds of America (April 2024)
The Birds of America (2021 edition)
Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America (2012)
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