An endangered species is a plant or animal that
is so rare that it is in danger of becoming extinct. Saving an endangered
species is never easy since usually many of the threats still remain
that made the species become so rare in the first place, such as
destruction of or development on the
Efforts to recover a species are usually taken in a series of small
steps over a period of many years. This has been especially true
for the whooping crane, a species that once had declined to only
21 birds and was literally one step away from extinction.
Endangered Whooping Cranes
Efforts to save the whooping crane began over 80 years ago.
In the 1920s, people began to realize how rare the whooping crane
was. A big early step forward was the establishment in 1937 of the
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where I work.
We are currently celebrating the record 237 whooping cranes that
winter at Aransas. There are more than three times as many whooping
cranes at Aransas now than there were in 1982
when I first started working at the refuge. At that time, there
were only 71 whooping cranes at Aransas.
Natural Tragedy in Florida Sets Back Recovery
The species is making progress. But we are also mourning the tragic
loss of 17
juvenile whooping cranes in Florida on February 2. Efforts to recover
the whooping crane were set back one year with that tragic loss.
Violent thunderstorms and high winds swept across the Florida coast
during the night, spawning deadly thunderstorms that took 20 human
young whooping cranes we called the "Class of 2006"
were in a pen out in the remote salt marsh about 5 miles from land
on the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The pen was covered
by a net to keep the young birds separated from two older whooping
cranes that were outside the pen. The older birds would attack
younger cranes and force the younger birds out of the pen. Also,
the young birds may not pick a safe spot to spend the night and
might get killed by a bobcat. Therefore, we had a net over the
pen to keep the young birds safe.
violent thunderstorms with very strong winds pushed a storm surge
several feet high into the pen. The birds could not escape, and
at least some of them drowned. The violent storms made it too dangerous
for our biologists to launch a boat and get
out to let the young cranes out of the pen. We are still trying
to figure out whether some of the birds may have been hit by lightning.
One bird escaped and survived. Some people have nicknamed this bird
“Houdini” after the famous magician who would escape
from locked boxes while tied up and do other amazing tricks.
Recovery Will Continue!
Our efforts to save the whooping crane are going to continue. We
aren’t giving up, but the loss of 17 cranes all in one night
shows just how fragile recovery efforts can be. We’ll figure
out what happened and make changes next year so that this won’t
What if such a tragic loss had occurred in the western flock of
whooping cranes wintering in Texas? For just that reason, biologists
are trying to get at least 2 additional populations started in the
wild as a safeguard against a catastrophe hurting any one of the
flocks. In the western flock, the parent cranes teach their youngsters
to migrate to Aransas on the Texas coast where they spend the winter.
There is no way to get the Aransas birds to migrate to new wintering
areas. That's why we have to start brand new populations using
birds raised in captivity and teach them a migration route and how
to survive in the wild. We have done this with great success
for the past 6 years, with 63 whooping cranes now migrating on their
own between Wisconsin and Florida. One pair has even hatched a young
crane in Wisconsin and taught it how to migrate to Florida. Our
work will continue for at least five more years or until we reach
our goal of having 125 birds in that eastern flock.