Go to M. Black's Home Page 



For more ideas visit our 2006-2007
 class project page

...and our
  for individuals and small groups

Track the monarchs and cranes via

Track the cranes via


via WWF Canada

Please support

 Please support Operation Migration

Please support
World Wildlife Fund Canada
Support WWF Canada

Whooping Cranes:
A Conservation Story Worth Celebrating!

by Margaret Black 

Get ready to read one of the most amazing comeback-tales of all time . . .  

The Whooping Crane is one of the oldest bird species on earth and the tallest bird in North America. Whoopers used to live in marshy areas in six Canadian provinces, 35 US states and four Mexican states. However, habitat destruction and hunting by humans in the last half of the 1800’s drove the Whooper to the very brink of extinction. By the 1940’s, there were just 15 Whooping Cranes left on the planet!

All of the remaining Whooping Cranes lived in one flock that nested in northern Canada. They migrated to the coast of Texas for the winter.

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for migratory birds, created in 1937, protected the Whoopers on their Texas wintering grounds. Laws preventing the hunting of Whooping Cranes in the US and Canada have also helped to protect the last of the Whoopers. 

Despite many efforts to find the nesting grounds, their exact location remained a mystery until 1954. That year, a fire crew flying over Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories spotted three Whooping Cranes. The following year, nests were located in the area. 

This discovery gave scientists in the US and Canada new opportunities to study the birds and to work toward saving them from extinction. Read on to find out about some of their conservation projects.  

In 1966, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) began a captive breeding program. Whooping Crane pairs lay two eggs each year, but usually only one of their chicks survives.  Therefore, scientists were able to remove one egg from each nest without decreasing the productivity of the wild flock. Between 1967 and 1996, 230 eggs were collected from the wild. These eggs were used to establish a captive flock that would produce offspring to be released into the wild. The captive flock has been productive enough that scientists no longer need to collect eggs from nests.  

Between 1975 and 1988, the USFWS and CWS transferred eggs from Whooping Cranes nests in Canada to the nests of Sandhill Cranes in Idaho. They had hoped to create a new wild flock by having Sandhills raise the Whoopers and then teach them to migrate to safe wintering grounds in New Mexico. This part of the experiment succeeded. However, the Whooping Cranes that were raised by Sandhills never bred with other Whoopers. Scientists think this is because they “imprinted” on the Sandhill Cranes (grew up thinking that they were Sandhills).

Over the years, banding and tracking have provided researchers with invaluable information about Whooping Crane migration and habitat use. From 1977 to 1988, brightly-colored plastic bands were attached to the legs of wild chicks in northern Canada. Leg bands allowed researchers to study particular birds throughout their lives. In 1981, scientists also began attaching radio transmitters to the legs of Whooping Crane chicks. This enabled researchers to follow entire families on migration.  

In 1993, scientists began releasing captive-raised Whooping Crane chicks into the Kissimmee Prairie area of Florida. Their goal was to re-establish a wild, non-migratory Whooper flock in eastern North America. Each year, 20 or more chicks are released into the Florida population. In 2000, a pair from this flock hatched the first two wild Whooper chicks in the US this century!  Scientists plan to continue releasing captive-raised Whooping Crane chicks in Florida until the flock stabilizes at 100-125 individuals, including at least 25 nesting pairs.

In 1998, eight government and non-profit agencies came together to form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). WCEP’s goal was to re-establish a wild, migratory flock in eastern North America. Cranes must be taught migration routes by their parents, but there were no migratory cranes left in the east, so WCEP had to be creative. They invited pilots from Operation Migration (OM) to lead captive-raised chicks on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida. Between 2001 and 2006, OM taught 78 chicks the route. WCEP plans to continue this work until the flock reaches 125 birds, including 25 nesting pairs.  

Within the span of sixty years, conservation efforts have enabled Whooping Cranes to rebound from just 15 birds in the 1940’s to approximately 470 in August 2007!  That’s a success-story worth celebrating!!  

In May 2007, the Western Migratory (natural) Flock stood at an amazing 236 individuals!  In May 2007, there were at least 45 Whoopers in the Florida non-migratory flock.  The Eastern Migratory (ultralight) flock suffered a high number of weather- and predator-related deaths between September 2006 and August 2007. However, the remaining 50 birds are faring well.

Support Operation Migration... the non-profit organization that uses aircraft to teach a safe migration route to the juvenile cranes in the Eastern Migratory Flock!

Click here to read more about Canadian involvement in Whooping Crane restoration.

Return to top