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)

It’s a Federal Crime to Kill a Whooping Crane

In the time I’ve been following what I sometimes call “the whooping crane drama,” 8 of these beautiful birds that belonged to our Eastern Migratory Population have died by gunfire. Though most of these deaths are unsolved cases, both the members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and those in the law enforcement community who have investigated the deaths, believe these are not accidental shootings, but wanton, senseless killings. Now two more such killings have been reported – so 10 whooping cranes in the EMP, which nests here in Wisconsin, have been destroyed this way.

The bad news arrived mid-January in the form of a press release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and it spread fast, re-broadcast by the International Crane Foundation, WCEP, Operation Migration, and other whooping crane partners. An injured crane had been discovered, and ultimately euthanized in late November, in Hopkins County, KY, and the body of its mate was recovered in Muhlenberg County, KY, on December 13, 2013. The Louisville Courier Journal reported that wildlife authorities had delayed announcing these killings “while they gathered evidence” and put together a reward package in order to ask for the public’s help in finding the perpetrators.

A Broadly-supported Effort to Encourage Public Input on Crane Killings

Is there anything that is more frustrating and unnerving to those who devote a good part of their lives to  preserving the endangered whooping crane? I don’t think so. The reward money, for anyone who gives information that directly leads to arrest and conviction of those responsible,  has steadily grown from  $7,200 to over $15,000. All kinds of groups are contributing to it, and in addition to those directly involved, these include the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Friends of Wheeler NWR, and more.

The killings are violations of both the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  The International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration are both urging their friends and followers to share widely the following “Help Us Save the Whooping Crane” public service announcement:

Eight More Whooping Crane Shootings

Here’s a brief rundown of what is known about the deaths-by-gunfire suffered by eight other birds in the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes:

At the end of 2010 – December 30th, in Georgia – the bodies of 3 young “Direct Autumn Release” cranes were found in Calhoun County. The cranes were on their first migration from Wisconsin, learning the way from older birds.

Early in 2011, two whooping cranes believed to have been shot were found at Weiss Lake in Alabama. The body of one was discovered on January 28th, and the second crane’s body was recovered in mid-February less than a quarter-mile away from where the first was found.

In the spring of 2011 a juvenile shooter and the adult that accompanied him were charged and sentenced in Indiana for the 2009 killing of an EMP crane. USFWS officials welcomed the closure to this case, but they got little else. The unusually light sentence imposed on the shooter in the Vermillion County, Indiana court left anger and disbelief among so many in the wildlife conservation community.

The year ended with the bad news of a second whooping crane shot in Indiana; its remains were discovered near Crothersville, Dec. 30th, 2011.  And while the new year was still fresh – on January 21, 2012 – someone in the Indiana DNR received a tip from a citizen that led to the discovery of a third whooping crane shot in Indiana.

Some justice, at least, seemed to prevail when two shooters were held responsible for the third Indiana whooping crane killing. Jason McCarter and John Burke, each of Knox County, were sentenced to 3 years of probation, 120 hours of community service at a state wildlife area, and a donation of $5,000 to the International Crane Foundation.

There have been some illegal shootings of whooping cranes outside the Eastern Migratory Population as well, and a recent case in South Dakota earned a 26-year-old shooter a truly stiff sentence: the requirement that he make $85,000 in restitution payments and serve 2 years of probation with no hunting or trapping rights. This news cheered wildlife conservationists and raised hopes that the message will spread to other potential shooters:  it really IS a crime to take the life of these birds.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Whooping Crane Encounters

Have you ever seen a whooping crane? Many of the people I know would be the first to admit they know little about whooping cranes, and almost nothing about the fact that there are whooping cranes right here in Wisconsin. But as our re-introduced flock grows (the current count of our Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes has just been established at 108 birds) the very slim chance that you would see one increases a a little.

So, would you know what to do? There are two very important things you should know, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

First, keep your distance – whooping cranes are wild creatures, and big; but the real concern about human and whooping crane interactions is that the crane’s natural fear of humans will diminish with each exposure. Their fear is an important survival mechanism and must be preserved.

The second thing to do, if you are ever lucky enough to sight a whooping crane is to report it. Here is a link to an online reporting form at the US Fish & Wildlife Servicer. It’s a page long, but filling it out looks like a fairly short and sweet process. Basically USFWS wants as much information as you can supply, but if all you have is the date, and the county where you sighted the crane, that will do.

Some interesting November whooping crane encounters here in Wisconsin have been reported in blogs and facebook groups. See the re-blog post that follows. It is from Dancing Bird Studio, where blog author, Darcy, writes about a new family – 2 adults and a juvenile – of whoopers, and how it came to be; with dramatic photos, too.