whoop whoop for the comeback crane
As North America’s tallest bird, the whooping crane is a sight to behold. A brilliant white bird, it stands five-feet tall with a seven-foot wingspan. Tail and tertiary wings feathers form a bustle like a wedding gown, and a regal face wears a crimson crown. But beauty isn’t what sets this bird apart from others – it is their story of survival amidst insurmountable odds that places this bird as a crown jewel for conservation.
“These cranes, once on the edge of extinction, now face a future brighter than we ever thought possible”.
By 1941 the whooping crane population had dwindled to only twenty-one individuals. Six lived year-round in Louisiana, and fifteen continued to fly the 2500-mile route between their unknown breeding grounds in Canada and
the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Despite several seminal environmental legislations, laws alone could not save the environment in which the birds needed to live, forage, and breed. One of the best ways to secure a bird’s future is by securing its nesting site, and in 1954 the mystery of the cranes’ summer whereabouts was solved through the most unlikely of ways – a forest fire! Helicopter pilots monitoring a summer fire spotted two magnificent white birds in the northern marshes of Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada. Park officials later confirmed thirteen cranes were living in the sanctuary of the park. Knowing the breeding grounds, biologists could better devise a way to protect these birds. The race to escape extinction had begun.

Scientists devised some creative ways to combat extinction. In the spring of 1967, biologists began searching for the nests of wild whooping cranes in Wood Buffalo National Park. Since whooping cranes lay between one and three eggs, the biologists would leave one fertile egg for the parents to raise and remove any remaining fertile eggs. These eggs would either be placed in egg-less nests of other
whooping crane (grus americana) north americas tallest bird
The whooping crane (Grus americana) is North America’s tallest bird, standing 5 feet tall with a 7 foot wingspan.
whooping cranes or would be transferred to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where they were artificially incubated and then reared in captivity. Unfortunately these cranes were too imprinted on their human caretakers to form normal social bonds with their conspecifics, setting biologists back to square one.

In 1975 they tried a new technique – adoption. Dubbed the “Rocky Mountain Experiment”, whooping crane eggs from Wood Buffalo Park and Patuxent were collected and sent to Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Idaho. The eggs were to be incubated and reared by a population of sandhill cranes in the hopes of producing a second population of migratory whooping cranes. The sandhill cranes were exceptional parents, but just as they had done with their human caretakers, the young whooping cranes imprinted on the contraspecifics instead of turning to their own kind. Realizing that they could not produce a sustainable population of whooping cranes, scientists discontinued the program.

Biologists never gave up hope on these majestic birds. Knowing how the birds had imprinted on both humans and another crane species, Dr. Robert Horwich proposed an audacious plan to save the species. In 1985 he suggested to the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, that hatchlings be raised by human foster parents dressed as whooping cranes. Every inch of the foster parent would be covered. A flowing white robe and white mask obscured the handler’s face, and black points on the robe’s sleeves mimicked the plumage of whooping crane wings. The only “parent” the colt would see was a hand-carved wooden puppet, painted like a whooping crane, which was manipulated by the handler as one would manipulate a sock puppet. While some thought the costume-rearing technique was ridiculous, the foster parents successfully raised whooping cranes who knew they were whooping cranes!

These birds, known as the Eastern Migratory Population, would be a separate sustainable migratory population from the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, spending their winters in the Florida panhandle and returning to Wisconsin in spring. But to make such a population, the cranes needed
to learn to migrate – a technique normally taught to them by their parents. Their costumed “parents” might be good at feeding them, but they certainly couldn’t fly south for the winter!

Operation Migration swooped in to assist. Based on their successful techniques of teaching migration patterns to orphaned waterfowl using ultralight aircraft, Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundation teamed up to prepare their colts for the 1200 mile journey to Florida. The arduous process of imprinting the chicks begins before the eggs even hatch. In the safety of their incubation chambers, the eggs are turned by their human handlers, who play recordings of the aircraft’s engines. Several days after hatching, the chicks are exposed to the actual aircraft, hearing recordings of both engine noise and crane calls. Handlers in full crane costume use the puppet parents to feed the colts, sometimes doing so from a taxiing aircraft to encourage the cranes to follow. This follow- the-leader technique is vital for conditioning the colts, as they strengthen their muscles first sprinting down the runway then taking to the skies for flight. As summer wanes the pilot and cranes increase the length of the flights until they are ready for their great adventure.

On October 17, 2001, the first small flock of whooping cranes began their journey from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Guidance by an ultralight aircraft presented unusual challenges. Given the nature of the aircraft, flying was restricted to daytime only. After sunset the cranes would rest in pens erected nightly to provide them a safe haven. Pilot and birds also remained grounded during inclement weather, lengthening their sojourn. Despite these challenges, on December 3, 2001, the flock safely landed at Florida’s Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge.

Since then, the aviators of Operation Migration have assisted both puppet and parent-reared cranes on their journey south every year. Colts that learned migration from the aircraft remembered the route for years, and as adults they migrated with their cohorts without the assistance
whooping crane sits on its nest at Floridas Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge
A whooping crane sits on its nest at Florida’s Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge. In 2006
a pair of these Operation Migration graduates became proud parents to a female chick,
#W1-06, the first wild whooping crane hatched from birds of the Eastern Migratory Population.
of the plane. In 2006 a pair of these Operation Migration graduates became proud parents to a female chick, #W1-06, the first wild whooping crane hatched from birds of the Eastern Migratory Population. Christened the “First Family”, the trio migrated south separately from Operation Migration’s yearly flock of chicks. But they landed at the same holding pens in Chassahowitzka where #W1-06’s parents spent their first winter. Tragically nearly all the first-year cranes from Operation Migration lost their lives during a freak storm on February 2nd, 2007. Only three of the 2006 hatchlings lived to migrate back to Wisconsin in the fall – among them was #W1- 06, who celebrated her twelfth birthday in June 2018.

The tenacity of cranes like #W1-06 brings hope to conservationists, not just for cranes but for all species. As of 2017, nearly 594 wild whooping cranes call North America home. Over a quarter of those cranes come from reintroduced populations, who would not be alive were it not for dedicated institutions like the International Crane Foundation, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, or Operation Migration. And whether parent or puppet-reared, every whooping crane benefits from the actions taken by their thousands of human stewards, from birders to wildlife biologists to national park employees to everyday citizens who only wish to save these magnificent birds. These cranes, once on the edge of extinction, now face a future brighter than we ever thought possible.

For more information on saving Whooping Cranes, visit the International Crane Foundation’s website at https://www.savingcranes.org/ or Operation Migration’s website at http://operationmigration.org/ To report a banded crane, go to: https://www.savingcranes.org/report-a-banded-crane/

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