Whooping Crane: Back from the Brink of Extinction

extinction, in biology, the dying out or extermination of a species. Extinction occurs when species are diminished because of environmental forces (habitat fragmentation, global change, natural disaster, overexploitation of species for human use) or because of evolutionary changes in their members (genetic inbreeding, poor reproduction, decline in population numbers).

Critically Endangered

Whooping Crane at Patuxent Research Refuge. Photo by Ross Feldner

Before humans began altering their habitat, it is estimated there were 15,000 to 20,000 Whooping Cranes. By the 1800’s and early 1900s, hunting and habitat loss began to reduce their numbers drastically. By 1860 there were only about 1,400 and in 1941 their population had fallen to the shockingly low number of 15! It seemed they were on the verge of extinction.

These last few survivors were all part of a single flock that migrated between Canada and Texas. Working with local, federal, and international governments to encourage breeding and protect the small flock, conservationists were able to increase their numbers to 57 by 1970 and 214 by 2005. Scientists quickly realized the danger of depending on one group of birds as a single disaster or sickness among them would be devastating. Biologists attempted to start a flock in Idaho, which disappeared after only a few years. A non-migratory flock was introduced in Florida and was somewhat successful, however, the Florida cranes never learned to migrate until the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team hit upon the novel idea of using an ultra-light aircraft to teach the young whoopers how to fly from Florida to Wisconsin without the help of adult birds. This technique was featured in the 1996 movie Fly Away Home, but using pet geese instead of cranes.

Whooping Crane at Patuxent Research Refuge. Photo by Ross Feldner

The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America, often reaching a height of around 5 feet, and inspires a feeling of awe with its snowy white plumage, bright crimson cap, bugling call, and playful courtship dance. It has an enormous wingspan of more than 7 feet and a 5 feet long trachea which coils into its sternum and allows the bird to give a loud whooping call that carries long distances over the marsh and inspired its name.

The Whooping Crane strides with a smooth and stately gait. Its courtship dance is a spectacle of leaping, kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping.

The Outlook Changes

58 years ago, a juvenile Whooping Crane with a broken wing was rescued from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. The rescuers named it CAN-US as a tribute to the two countries actively working to save the last remaining Whooping Cranes, the United States and Canada. By this time, the outlook for Whooping Cranes was bleak. There were only 42 left in the wild. The capture of Canus was preceded by an agreement between Canada and the U.S. to establish a breeding flock of captive Whooping Cranes at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland as a hedge against the species’ looming extinction.

Ken Lavish speaks to tour group. Photo by Ross Feldner

Patuxent was the birthplace of the captive breeding program for Whooping Cranes. I had the good fortune of volunteering at the Patuxent Refuge while the Whooping Crane breeding program was still active. I continue to volunteer there as well as being the newsletter editor of the Friends of Patuxent newsletter and got to experience the program in person. I went on several trips into the compound where the Whooping Cranes were being nurtured and bred for future success.

On one of these visits included RCC’s own President and CEO Bob Musil who accompanied me to listen to my friend Ken Lavish explain the program in great detail. Ken was a long-time crane expert who educated visitors and was dedicated to the survival of the cranes.

The first Whooping Cranes to arrive at Patuxent were Canus and a human-imprinted juvenile female from the San Antonio Zoo named Tex. These pioneers were followed by Whooping Cranes hatched from 12 eggs collected from the wild in 1967. For over 50 years, researchers at Patuxent nurtured the rare white birds and perfected techniques for breeding and rearing them. Cranes produced at Patuxent have always been critical to the establishment of new populations in the wild.

More Change

Maturing Whooping Crane

In 2017, everyone involved in the program was shocked when the U.S. Geological Survey abruptly announced the closure of the crane program at Patuxent. Other programs at Patuxent including breeding bird surveys, banding, and studies of contaminants would continue. Many of the staff formerly employed to help cranes joined these programs. Patuxent’s 72 successful Whooping Cranes were sent to other centers including the International Crane Foundation. The Whooping Crane Species Survival Program created by the American Zoological Association, with guidance from the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, was tasked with identifying accredited facilities for these Whooping Cranes. Nearly half of the Patuxent whooping crane flock was shipped to Louisiana in October, 2018, and 200 acres of whooping crane pens have been emptied.

During its time in office The Trump administration eliminated the $1.5 million-a-year breeding program, run by the U.S. Geological Survey on a federal Fish and Wildlife Service refuge. Zoos and other private wildlife centers are now taking over the work.

Ross A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.

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