The Whooping Crane
The whooping crane is one of America's most magnificent birds. At up to five feet tall, they are the tallest birds in North America. The only other crane in North America is the sandhill crane. Unlike the sandhills, the whooping crane has never been numerous. Even before Europeans cam to America, it is estimated that the whooping crane population was little more than 10,000 birds. Unfortunately, loss of habitat and hunting reduced their numbers to only 23 in 1945.
Though still rare, the species has been brought back from the brink through extensive conservation efforts. By 2011 their numbers nearly reached 600, with the majority of those in the wild
Whooping Crane Flocks
There are or have been five different flocks of whooping cranes since 1940:
- Aransas - Wood Buffalo
- Rocky Mountain
- Florida non-migratory
- Eastern Migratory
The Aransas - Wood Buffalo flock is the only one which has existed continuously since 1940. Luck was on the side of the cranes in 1922, when Canada created the Wood Buffalo National Park. At the time, they didn't know that whooping cranes nested there. Their breeding grounds were not discovered until 1954. They spend winters along the Gulf coast of Texas, including the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This flock has always been the largest since the 1930s. It numbered 310 birds in February of 2015.
Louisiana once had a non-migratory flock of whooping cranes. The last recorded chick from this flock was born in 1939, when the flock numbered 13 birds. By 1948 the flock was down to one individual, and was completely gone by 1950. In 2010 efforts began to re-establish a non-migratory flock in Louisiana with the release of 24 birds. As of February, 2015 this flock contained 29 cranes.
The Rocky Mountain flock was established in 1975. It was based on a novel idea. They would implant whooping crane eggs into the nests of sandhill cranes. 89 chicks hatched from 289 eggs, and the young whooping cranes learned to migrate. Unfortunately, they never mated. This experiment was discontinued in 1989 and the last bird in this flock died in 2002.
After the failed Rocky Mountain flock, conservationists wanted to create a separate flock in case disaster hit the Aransas - Wood Buffalo flock. They decided to establish a non-migratory flock near Kissimmee, Florida. in 1993. Although this population reached 53 birds in 2006, a decision was made not to add additional captive-raised birds. The flock had a high mortality rate, and a low reproduction rate. Studies continue on this flock, whose numbers dropped to 8 in 2015.
Establishment of an eastern migrating flock commenced in 2001. Captive-raised birds were trained to follow an ultralight aircraft. This allowed humans to teach them to migrate from Wisconsin in the summer to Florida in the winter. This effort is managed by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, which includes the following organizations:
- U.S. Geological Survey: Whooping crane chicks are raised at their Patuxent Wildlife Research Center:
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: They manage the flocks breeding area (Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin) and the wintering area (Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles north of St. Petersburg).
- Operation Migration: They train the young cranes and lead them on their migration.
- International Crane Foundation: They track the adult cranes in the wild.
- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Provides veterinary care for the cranes and coordinates with private and public landowners to maintain and protect crane habitat
Although the eastern flock has made great progress and numbered 95 cranes in February of 2015, it has not yet met its goal of becoming a self-sustaining flock.
With over 400 whooping cranes living wild, their total now numbers over 600 birds. While conservation efforts have brought them back from the brink of extinction, much more will be required to make sure this magnificent bird survives.