The Whooping Crane: A Conservation Success Story

Have you ever heard of the whooping crane? If not, that’s not very surprising, as only a few hundred whooping cranes exist in the wild as of 2015 (1). That may not seem like very many, but that number becomes quite remarkable when taking into account the whooping crane’s dramatic and tumultuous history. Prior to European settlement, it is estimated that over 10,000 whooping cranes roamed the North American skies (2). Tragically, destruction of wetland habitat and unrestricted hunting beginning in the early 1800's resulted in striking declines in the whooping crane population, leaving only about 1,400 individuals in the wild by the year 1860. In the early 1940's, the whooping crane population reached its lowest count ever; with a mere 15 whooping cranes remaining in the wild, the species seemed destined for extinction (3).

Habitat loss and hunting were the primary factors that drove declines of whooping cranes.

This flock of 15 whooping cranes migrated between Alberta, Canada and Texas every year, and came under the protection of conservationists in both countries, who worked diligently with their governments to preserve the species and encourage breeding. By 1970, the flock had more than tripled. These results were promising, but preserving a single flock left the species vulnerable to disturbances such as disease that could potentially eradicate the species. After several unsuccessful attempts to reintroduce flocks, conservationists released a flock of whooping cranes in Florida beginning in 1993, but with one caveat: the birds did not know how to migrate (4).

An organization called Operation Migration came up with a novel solution to this dilemma. Under the approval of American and Canadian scientists, the organization uses ultra-light aircraft to teach the cranes to migrate to migrate to wetlands in central Wisconsin during the summer months. This technique has proven to be effective, and is planned to be used in future crane reintroduction projects (5).

Whooping cranes and other migratory bird species are also rebounding due to increased investment in wetland restoration in recent years. For example, President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 saw the purchase of flood-prone cropland which was then converted to its original wetland state. One of these restored wetlands in the U.S. state of Illinois saw the return of some migratory whooping cranes (6). The North American Migratory Bird Joint Venture project, a product of public and private investment, has funded the restoration of more than 25 million acres of wetlands in the United States, Canada, and Mexico (7). These achievements and the return of migratory birds such as the whooping crane are to be celebrated. The success of past, present, and future projects of this nature comes as a result of international cooperation, and private and public funding, which must continue to ensure the survival of wetlands and all species which inhabit them. Here’s to more success stories to come.

Works Cited

(1) Whooping Crane — Quivira — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (accessed Apr 14, 2017).

(2) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016, 3.

(3) Whooping Crane (accessed Apr 14, 2017).

(4) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,. Whooping Cranes: The Road to Survival; Austwell, Texas, 2005; p. 6.

(5) The Whooping Crane (accessed Apr 14, 2017).

(6) Success Story — The Cranes! Let’s Celebrate the REAL Wetland Story (accessed Apr 14, 2017).

(7) Success Story: Wetlands Conservation and the Return of Migratory Birds | PG&E Currents (accessed Apr 14, 2017).

Image Citations

Saving a Species (accessed Apr 14, 2017).

Operation Migration — 10 years of caring: Disney’s Animal Kingdom (accessed Apr 14, 2017).

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