Whooping Cranes by Kate Crowley


In my last column I wrote about snow geese – large, white, migratory waterfowl that have recovered far beyond anyone’s expectations from a severely depleted population.  Another migratory waterfowl (wader) that replicates the white and black feather patterns of the snow goose is on the other end of the spectrum; struggling to recover from near extinction. Who am I talking about? Whooping cranes; that’s who.   While still considered Endangered, they are gradually, through much human research, breeding and reintroduction programs, on the increase.

At five feet, these magnificent, stately birds are the tallest in the North America. They have a wingspan of 7-8 feet, but only weigh between 11-16 pounds.  Besides their white and black feathers, they also sport a bright red patch on their forehead, a black moustache and legs.  They have a long, sharply pointed beak, typical of all cranes, the better to penetrate the thick marshy vegetation while they search for food.

I have only seen one wild whooping crane.  We were at the Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming and the bird was standing amongst a flock of sandhill cranes, far in the distance.  Only a dot of white through my binoculars, a spotting scope confirmed its identity.  This bird was most likely from the population that nests in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, and migrates south to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas

In pre-settlement times these great white birds nested throughout the upper Midwest states in the huge prairie pothole regions.  It is estimated there were around 1400-1600 of the birds during the 1860s and ‘70s.  But they are very shy, nervous birds and do not tolerate humans as easily as their relatives, the sandhill cranes. 

Once settlement really got under way, the combined presence of humans and their agricultural practices quickly erased the whoopers from the landscape.  The migratory population that summered in Wood Buffalo managed to hang on, but the eastern population that once migrated to the Gulf Coast disappeared. 

In 1937 the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas was established specifically to protect the wintering grounds of the whoopers along this stretch of the Gulf of Mexico.  It was none too soon, because by the 1940s all whooping cranes were considered endangered.  Only 22 wild birds were left at that time.

Leap ahead 30 years and we find two young Cornell University grad students studying and worried about cranes worldwide.  They recognized that this group of birds was facing huge habitat losses, as well as pressures from hunting and poaching. In their passion for the species and desire to help, they created the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, Wisconsin

One of the co-founders, George Archibald would become famous in 1982 for serving as the proxy mate of a human imprinted female whooping crane.  He would ‘dance’ with her, just as a male whooper would and through this ‘courtship’ and artificial insemination, she proceeded to lay eggs, one of which hatched and became the first whooping crane chick born in captivity.  They named it ‘Gee Whiz’.  From that chick came successive generations of whoopers. 

Once this and other precious chicks arrived, the staff at the ICF realized they needed to do something to raise these rare birds without causing them to imprint on humans, since the goal was to eventually release them into the wild.  So they developed whooping crane costumes to wear whenever they fed or were around the chicks.  And it worked. 

After receiving 22 more cranes from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 1989, the ICF was able to move forward with plans to reestablish wild populations, the first of which was a non-migratory flock in Florida in 1993. 

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