They used to hunt whooping cranes. Between that and habitat loss, the number dropped from nearly 20,0000 to a mere 1,400 during the first half of the 19th century, and continued to drop to an all time low of 15 birds in 1941.
Fifteen birds, in 1941, represented the entire species.
Most people know the story, or at least, the vague outlines of the story. Much has been written about them, including several books such as Cranes: A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis, which is about cranes in general (most cranes are threatened or endangered), and a few ~ A few ~ their rescue ~ and comeback. There are also academic works on the whooping crane story, including a study of what happens to their genetics when their population undergoes such a bottleneck. They’ve even been sullied by economists.
With considerable effort from numerous private and government agencies, in both Canada and the US, the whooping crane population has soared, bird-like, from about one tenth of one percent of their normal population to almost 2 percent of their normal population (from 15 or so, depending on which source you like1, to between 300 and 400, of which only half live in the wild) over a period of about 60 years.
One of the things that had to happen to save the cranes was teaching new chicks where to go, and this was accomplished by getting them to imprint on humans. Then, the specific human to which the bird had imprinted was attached to a lawnmower engine with a propeller on it and flown along the migration route. More or less.
As it turns out, the future of the whooping cranes was tied to a small plane. Creating a new migratory flock of whooping cranes required teaching young chicks how to migrate without the assistance of adult birds. The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team decided to use an ultralight aircraft as a teaching tool to show the young whooping cranes how to fly from western Florida to Wisconsin. The program has proven very successful and as of October 2009, there are 77 whooping cranes that follow a plane from Florida to Wisconsin and back each year.
Once the cranes were imprinted on humans they needed to undergo the crane version of dating, which involved an elaborate mating dance, with human rather than crane partners. Or at least, that’s what the crazy scientists such as Dr. George Archibald, who engaged in this … activity, insisted to be necessary.
Saving the whooping crane from extinction certainly required a great deal of effort. And dancing and flying.
You will see, occasionally, verbiage such as “whooping cranes have come back from the brink of extinction.” That’s not true. They are still very much on the brink of extinction. Although there have been efforts to split the slowly growing flock into different geographical distributions, it is still the case that the wintering grounds could all be affected by a single bad hurricane year (and we do have them now and then). And, with several states attempting to bring back crane hunting, some will surely be shot while migrating. (I assume there is no effort to bring back hunting of this species, but given the way things operate there will be collateral damages if Jeeter and Bubba are in fact allowed to legally shoot at crane-like birds).
Internet resources and photo sources:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Whooping Crane Page
National Wildlife Federation Whooping Crane Page
National Geographic Animals Whooping Crane Page
1National Geographic says 16*; Wikipedia says 21**; The National Wildlife Federation says 15***.