only self-sustaining wild population of whooping cranes migrates between
Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The population of the natural
migratory flock hit an all time low in 1941
when only 15 cranes were at Aransas NWR. That same year, there were
still 6 cranes in the nonmigratory flock in Louisiana. So 15
at Aransas + 6 in Louisiana = 21, the all-time
low for Whooping Cranes in North America. Thanks to joint
efforts by Canada and the United States, their numbers have been
struggling back from the brink of extinction but they remain vulnerable
to extinction from continued loss of
habitat or natural or man-made catastrophes. The long-term fate of
Crane is still uncertain. In
2007, the combined number of captive and wild whooping cranes in the world
passed the 500 mark! Click
here for recent numbers . Small fluctuations in population are normal.
A. The world's only remaining wild migratory flock of Whooping Cranes, with one summer home and one winter home, might be lost to disease, bad weather, or other natural or human-caused disaster such as oil spills. That's why in 2001 the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership began reintroducing a new migratory flock into eastern North America. You can read all about that first ultralight-led migration in 2001 as well as the progress of the new Eastern flock by clicking here. To further protect the species from being wiped out, a nonmigratory flock was begun in Florida (see above) and a second nonmigratory flock began in Louisiana in February 2011.
Q. How fast is the Whooping Crane population growing?
A. Some recent record years for the last remaining natural flock were 1995 with an increase of 25 cranes, and 1997 with an increase of 22 cranes. The year 1999 was a struggle for the Whooping Cranes and disappointing for crane biologists. The flock managed to increase their numbers by only ONE crane. But in fall of 2004, the number of whooping cranes in this flock (the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock, or Western flock) finally went over the 200 mark! In 2007 the Western flock passed the 250 mark. The winter of 2009 was a very bad one for cranes due to a long drought in their Texas wintering grounds and 23 birds (8.5% of the flock) died in that year, bringing the natural flock's spring 2010 total to 263. Since 2001, a new, reintroduced eastern flock has been slowly growing, migrating between Wisconsin and Florida. In 2007, the combined number of captive and wild whooping cranes in the world passed the 500 mark! Click here for recent numbers.
Q. What has been done to increase the numbers of this endangered species?
A. In 1975 scientists and wildlife officials decided to use a new technique to start a second wild whooper flock. They began collecting whooper eggs from nests in Canada and taking them to Gray's Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. The whooper eggs were placed in the nests of sandhill cranes. (Removing one egg did not affect growth of the wild flock since whoopers normally lay two eggs but usually raise only one chick successfully.) The sandhill crane foster parents hatched and raised 4 whooper chicks in 1975. They taught the young whoopers to find food and to avoid predators such as coyotes and eagles. In the fall, the sandhills led the chicks on an 850-mile migration to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The young whoopers returned to Gray's Lake in the spring but by 2002, the number of Whooping Cranes in this new Rocky Mountain population was down to zero. Then, in 2000, ultralight aircraft successfully led a flock of sandhills between Wisconsin and Florida . This paved the way to do the same migration experiment with endangered Whooping Cranes in 2001 — and each year after that for several more years. This reintroduced eastern flock is becoming the ancestral flock for a second migratory flock in eastern North America, where Whooping Cranes disappeared over a century ago. In addition, Whooping Cranes in a few captive breeding centers are laying eggs and hatching chicks that will become part of the growing new eastern flock in the future, either through ultralight-led migrations or Direct Autumn Release among experienced Whooping Cranes to follow them on migration and learn the route. In addition, a small reintroduced flock (started in 1993) lives year-round in central Florida. A second nonmigratory flock being proposed for Louisiana could begin in 2011. Cranes in nonmigratory flocks DO NOT migrate because as young birds none of the cranes have ever been taught a migration route by wild parents or by human assistance.
Q. What is the most fascinating thing wildlife biologist Dr. Tom Stehn has learned about the Whooping Crane since conducting research on cranes?
A. Tom says: "For me, the most fascinating thing is that the babies imprint. The very first moving creature that a baby crane sees when it hatches becomes its image of adult cranes and when the baby grows up, that will be what it seeks in a mate. So when cranes were raised in captivity and fed by humans, they fell in love with humans. The most famous example of this is Tex, a crane that was originally raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and then sent to the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Tex bonded with crane scientist George Archibald, who had to jump up and down flapping his arms doing a crane dance with Tex every spring in order for her to lay eggs."
Q. How long do Whooping Cranes live?
A. A whooper in the wild usually lives 24-30 years. A Whooping crane in captivity may live 35 to 40 years or even longer. On June 2, 2007, a crane named "Rattler" at at the Internationl Crane Foundation (ICF) broke the record for longevity of a Whooping Crane in captivity! Rattler hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland on June 2, 1968 and lived there until 1989. He was given special food treats all during his birthday week to celebrate, and the aviculturalists ate cupcakes for Rattler's birthday party. The previous record for a captive Whooping crane was 38 years, 7 months for "Canus." This injured wild-caught chick died at Patuxent WRC in 2003. Banding studies help us learn how long cranes live, but voice prints are the newest way way of keeping track of individual cranes over the years.
Q. How are Whooping cranes important to the ecosystem?
A. Whooping cranes eat a wide variety of foods, both plant and animal, and they in turn are prey for predators such as foxes, wolves, coyotes, lynxes, bobcats, raccoons, and even Golden eagles.
Q. Why are Whooping Cranes being reintroduced to eastern North America?
A. Whooping Cranes are a highly endangered species. The only naturally occurring flock of wild migratory whooping cranes left in the world has been the one that migrates between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. It is a huge risk to have all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and one breeding location. With all of the cranes concentrated in one small area, the population could be wiped out by disease, bad weather, or human impacts such as oil spills or freshwater demands. Whooping Crane survival depends on additional, separate populations being established. Survival also depends on good crane habitat remaining available at their winter and summer homes and along their migration routes.
Q. Who decides how many additional populations are needed?
A. After a species is listed as threatened or endangered, the Endangered Species Act requires that a recovery plan be designed. A recovery plan is a blueprint to improve population health of threatened and endangered species. The recovery plan for Whooping cranes was developed by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, made up of five specialists from Canada and five from the United States. The Recovery Team has also decided that any new flock should be established in areas where there is very a low chance of contacting the existing wild flock. This separation will minimize the possibility of spreading diseases between newly established flocks and other existing Whooping cranes.
Q. Was Wisconsin the first site considered for reintroduction?
A. No. A non-migratory flock has been reintroduced in the Kissimmee Prairie region of central Florida. As of August 2002, 89 birds were in that flock. Most of those birds are young, but two whooping crane chicks hatched in Florida for the first time in 60 years. Both chicks were taken by predators, but in the summer of 2002 one chick lived to flege. Named Lucky, it was the first wild chick fledged in the U.S. dating back to the last nesting of Whooping cranes in Louisiana in 1939. Lucky is the first whooping crane fledged in Florida since the reintroduction of the nonmigratory flock started in 1993. In 1975, another attempt to reintroduce whooping cranes began in Idaho when whooping crane eggs were placed in sandhill crane nests. The sandhill cranes then became foster parents. The attempt did not succeed because the Whooping cranes only recognized sandhills and would not breed with other Whooping cranes when they reached adulthood.
Q. Why was Wisconsin considered as a reintroduction site?
A. The most important reason was that the new Wisconsin flock will be separated by a distance from other wild flocks. Also, Wisconsin has a lot of suitable crane habitat on federal, state, and private lands. Wisconsin's has a long tradition of environmental commitment and suppport from the public, giving better chances for the project to succeed. For a simulation game about choosing a new home for the whoopers, see Whoopers for Wisconsin?.
Q. How was the specific site for reintroduction in Wisconsin chosen?
A. Three Wisconsin release sites were investigated in 1999. Site selection was based on habitat analysis, local community support, and protection potential. In September 1999, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team selected Necedah National Wildlife Refuge for a test release using sandhill cranes in 2000. The migration experiment with sandhills was a success, paving the way for the same experiment to be repeated with whooping cranes beginning in 2001.
Where do the birds for reintroductions come from?
How are the birds reintroduced?