<p>A whooping crane flies out of the nest to feed. The bird remains one of the rarest in the world.</p>

A whooping crane flies out of the nest to feed. The bird remains one of the rarest in the world.

Photograph by Klaus Nigge, Nat Geo Image Collection

See Glorious Pictures of Birds as Tall as People

The once thriving population now only has one flock in the wild.

People love rooting for the underdog, which might help to explain the popularity of the charismatic whooping crane - often considered an icon for endangered species, and a poster child for habitat restoration.

Standing at around 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of over 7 feet – they are the tallest bird species in North America, and live for an average of over 20 years in the wild.

Whooping cranes have been around for a staggering 60 million years, and are one of the few living relics of the Pleistocene-era megafauna.

In 1941, the number of these large, majestic birds dropped dangerously low, with only 16 individuals remaining. The odds for their continued survival looked grim.

Thanks to the combined efforts of conservationists working with U.S and Canadian governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations to implement captive breeding programs and wetland protection, their numbers rose slowly to just under 60 in 1970.

Interestingly, the survival of the whooping crane was also linked to a small plane that guided a migratory flock between western Florida and Wisconsin. The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, who decided to use the ultralight aircraft to guide young chicks without the assistance of adult birds from Florida to Wisconsin, devised the unique conservation tool.

Whooping Crane Day, which annually falls on May 18, calls attention to the threats that face these unique birds, and the efforts to save their species from extinction.

Today, the whooping crane remains one of the rarest birds in the world with around 600 individuals, including those found in the wild and in captivity. Though their numbers continue to rise, they are still recognized as endangered on by the IUCN.

A flock of around 300 whooping cranes is currently the only naturally occurring wild population in the world, and is constantly threatened by habitat loss and the possibility of disease.

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