The Marvelous Migrating Whooping Crane

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.

All those birds were members of a single flock that migrated between the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, USA and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.


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.

wcrane_Tex&Geo.dancing.jpgYou 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
Journey North
Operation Migration
National Geographic Animals Whooping Crane Page
1National Geographic says 16*; Wikipedia says 21**; The National Wildlife Federation says 15***.


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Securing the future will almost certainly require sequencing the genomes of old taxidermy specimen to regain a fraction of the lost genetic diversity.
Fortunately the rapid progress in sequencinng technologies will make this affordable, and the progress in filtering out the effects of contamination of old specimen by Svante Pääbo et al at Max Planck Institute will also be invaluable.

I do not know how difficult bird eggs are to clone, but the large eggs imply the process might be more robust than with the mammalian micro-eggs.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 23 May 2011 #permalink

Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues) for further reading.

"Windy or not, a day this beautiful has to be lived. The day is bright and clear, the sky blue, and the dry air feels light. A northerly wind stirs a primal urge to move. The geese feel it, and so do I. Perhaps it is a last internal vestige from a time, long ago, when we migrated with the seasons across open plains, following the animals we pursued for food. Perhaps that is why the sight of migrating geese arrests our attention, why we feel the pull. We want to go, to travel in fresh or moody weather, taking in each newly revealed vista." - Carl Safina

I've always wondered if brown headed cow birds could be taught to build nests and raise young.

That's an interesting question. That could actually be a doable experiment in a high school biology class.

I'm thinking not. The young do grow up seeing all the nurturing behavior (because they are nurtured). You'd have to look at facultative parasites.

While a new class of whooping cranes follows an ultralight from Florida to Wisconsin each fall (since 2001), it is not true that they follow the plane back to Wisconsin.

On the contrary, they need no help once they've learned the migration route and return reliably every spring. You can follow the journey - usually fascinating, sometimes hilarious - of the crane youngsters in daily posts at the website of Operation Migration listed above (and one of the founding members of the partnership to establish the WI-FL flock).

Your larger point that the existence of whooping cranes is still extremely precarious is SO true. At Journey North, also listed above, it is stated that "The long-term recovery goal for Whooping cranes is to establish a self-sustaining population of a minimum of 1,000 Whooping cranes in ALL of North America by the year 2035." Currently Journey North counts 414 whooping cranes in the wild, but they still have a long way to go! And at another source (which I can't now locate) I read that endangered species experts believe that a species needs to number over 5,000 to be considered stable. Will whooping cranes ever make it? Wouldn't we like to hope so?