Where the Birds Are: Various Whooping Crane Populations Explained

When we speak or write about whooping cranes it’s always good to know which population of the  whoopers we’re referring to. Although there are only a small number of these big, wonderful North American birds alive today (approximately 400 in the wild, and near 200 in captivity), they are spread across a variety of habitats and locations.

Some are divided among 3 captive populations, and others are in groups designated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as “non-essential experimental populations.” And 250, or more, are in the one and only self-sustaining wild flock.

So you can see, when discussing whooping crane news, it’s helpful to know which of these groups of cranes is the one from whence the news is coming. Here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane, we’re most interested, naturally, in what’s happening with the whooping cranes that migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. Known affectionately at this blog as “our cranes”, or the “Wisconsin cranes,” their official designation is the tongue twister “non-essential, experimental Eastern Migratory Population (or, to simplify,  the EMP). Responsibility for the EMP cranes falls to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, written about here earlier.

An adult whooping crane pair in the Eastern Migratory Population (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP)

An adult whooping crane pair that live within the captive population at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI. (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP

But the EMP cranes – “our cranes” – are just one part of the bigger picture for the whooping crane story, and a post clarifying the various populations seems overdue. So what follows is a description of each one – population by population.

The Wild Ones

Each whooping crane in existence today is derived from the one self-sustaining wild flock – which has been brought back, literally, from the brink. The birds in this population migrate between Canada’s Wood-Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, and the Texas Gulf Coast, crossing the international border twice each year.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane.  (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane. (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

This flock reached its historic low point during the winter of 1940-41 when only 15 birds were counted. Public education campaigns and conservation efforts intensified after that, and the numbers have crept back up – at a snail’s pace, but consistently upwards.

A long history of close cooperation between the wildlife agencies in both countries gets a lot of the credit for keeping the species alive.

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where he only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer.  (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada wheret he only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer. (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

My source for the historical data on this Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, and for the next section on Captive Breeding is a “Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan” (Curt Meine and George Archibald, 1996).  It’s online at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center; you can also access it through a link on the International Crane Foundation’s whooping crane page.

Captive Whooping Crane Populations

A new tool was added to the efforts to help the whooping crane species survive in 1967 when a captive breeding program was put in place at the USFWS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.  The Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cooperated to remove single eggs from the nests of wild cranes (nests usually contain two eggs) on their Wood Buffalo NP breeding grounds and transfer them to Patuxent for hatching and raising.

This tray of whooper eggs has just come out of the incubator. The eggs will be examined, candled, and weighed to see how their development is progressing. Eggs lose weight during incubation as the chicks grow and use up yolk and fluid. But if an egg loses too much weight too quickly, it can be helped by special treatments or placed in a separate incubator that has a higher humidity level. (Photo by Nelson Beyer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

This tray of whooper eggs has just come out of the incubator. The eggs will be examined, candled, and weighed to see how their development is progressing. Eggs lose weight during incubation as the chicks grow and use up yolk and fluid. But if an egg loses too much weight too quickly, it can be helped by special treatments or placed in a separate incubator that has a higher humidity level. (Photo by Nelson Beyer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

By 1975 the cranes that had hatched from the collected eggs, had begun to produce their own first eggs. In 1989 the captive breeding program was expanded to include the International Crane Foundation and in 1992 it expanded to the Calgary Zoo.

Today Patuxent and ICF remain the primary centers of captive breeding. The most recent numbers I could find, are from The Journey North website, dated August 30, 2011, which lists 75 whooping cranes in the captive population at Patuxent, including 15 breeding pair, and 37 cranes at ICF with 11 breeding pair.  Six breeding pair are listed at the Devonian  Wildlife conservation Center in Calgary, and there were also 1 breeding pair at the San Antonio Zoo, and 2 at the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans.

 USGS employee training baby whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft. (Paul K. Cascio  photographer          USGS Multimedia Gallery)

USGS employee training baby whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft.
(Paul K. Cascio photographer USGS Multimedia Gallery)

The Experimental Populations

Once the captive breeding programs were well-established, the efforts for preservation of the whooping crane species shifted into a new gear.  The focus became all about restoring some of the captive-raised chicks into the wild.  But how?

Much thinking and experimentation has gone into these efforts. In their 1996 report (linked to above) Archibald and Meine wrote, “Teaching migration to young whooping cranes continues to be the most significant barrier . . .” to reestablishing whooping cranes in the wild.

Since then the method of leading an annual class of crane chicks from Wisconsin to Florida via ultralight aircraft has been perfected, and has become a major factor in building an Eastern Migratory Population of 100 birds. Although the EMP flock has – as yet – had little breeding success, it continues to grow through ultralight-led chicks. That method is now being supplemented with releasing captive-raised chicks with older cranes, too.

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

In addition to this one quite successful – if incomplete – re-introduction of whooping cranes in Eastern North America, the partners of WCEP continue with efforts to establish a non-migrating flock in the wild. From 1993 – 2004, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee worked with WCEP to introduce a non-migrating flock in central Florida, but problems with drought, predators, and reproduction have brought an end to the release of new cranes into this project. Since 2011 the focus for developing a non-migrating flock of whooping cranes has shifted to the wetlands of Louisiana. In partnership with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the fourth cohort of juvenile whooping cranes from Patuxent was released at the White Lakes Wetlands Conservation Area early this year.

A class photo! The entire gang of adolescent whooping crane chicks together at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. The chicks, hatched and raised by USGS caretakers, are being released into the wild in Louisiana in February 2011. It is a milestone for the state and for the birds, which have not lived in the state since the 1950s. (Photo courtesy USGS)

A class photo! The entire gang of adolescent whooping crane chicks together at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. The chicks, hatched and raised by USGS caretakers, are being released into the wild in Louisiana in February 2011. It is a milestone for the state and for the birds, which have not lived in the state since the 1950s. (Photo courtesy USGS)

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2 thoughts on “Where the Birds Are: Various Whooping Crane Populations Explained

  1. This is an excellent summary of the several populations of whooping cranes. It will be most useful to many persons who do have this information. Thanks for all your efforts to help educate people.
    Chester McConne,,
    Friends of the Wild Whoopers

  2. And thank YOU, Chester. I thought this was an important post to write, and I really enjoyed doing it, but it’s not one that’s had the readers that some other posts have had. It is a good basic reference though (well, hopefully it is), and maybe I’ll post it on the front page links or resources.

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