Whooping cranes nearly vanished in the mid-20th century, with a 1941 count finding only 16 living birds.
Since then, these endangered animals have taken a step back from the brink of extinction. Captive breeding programs have boosted their numbers, and successful reintroduction efforts have raised the number of wild birds to several hundred.
The massive whooping crane management effort involves numerous U.S. and Canadian governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and other contributors. The process even includes using ultralight aircraft to lead young whooping cranes on their first southward migration, from Wisconsin to Florida.
These majestic white birds are the tallest in North America. They live in family groups and frequent marshes, shallow lakes, and lagoons. Cranes feed by foraging with their bills and gobbling up plants, shellfish, insects, fish, and frogs.
Population Range and Migration
The whooping crane's primary natural breeding ground is Wood Buffalo National Park, in Canada's Northwest Territories and Alberta. Here the cranes perform elaborate running, leaping, wing-flapping dances to choose mates that they will keep for life.
When summer ends, these migratory birds set out for the Gulf Coast of Texas, where they winter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Managers hope to establish a Wisconsin breeding population that will winter in Florida, where a small introduced population lives year-round on the Kissimmee Prairie.
Threats to Survival
Whooping cranes are generally safe from hunting and egg collection, which hastened their decline. However, their biggest threat—loss of wetlands—persists. Though the areas that the birds frequent are protected, they are isolated and make the entire population vulnerable to any disastrous ecological event or change.