Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane has a quite remarkable story. In the Pleistocene, these birds had a range that covered a vast area of North America. When westward expansion began in the 19th century, unregulated hunting and loss of habitat caused numbers to dwindle. By 1941, there were only sixteen birds left. Since then, multiple efforts have been made to both protect existing birds, and to create new migratory flocks. The only naturally occurring flock left migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. An additional route has been established between Wisconsin and Florida.

Whooping Cranes are the tallest birds in North America. They stand at about five feet, and possess a seven and a half foot wingspan. Aside from its dark legs, beak, and facial markings, the adult Whooping Crane is entirely white. They are named for their whooping call, which is instrumental in the mating process. Mated pairs will sing duets together, while additional calls are made by nesting birds to announce their territory. They live in marshland areas, and are omnivorous. Whooping Cranes feed off of a variety of different things including plants, crustaceans, fish, and insects.
(Image Source)

But lets go back to those reintroduction efforts. There are now, as of January 2010, 551 Whooping Cranes in the wild and in captivity. One of the most interesting things I learned about this process is that ultra-light planes have been used to lead young Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population from their birthplaces in Wisconsin down to their wintering grounds in Florida. In the spring, the young birds are able to make the flight back to Wisconsin unassisted. In a side note, there was also, briefly in the 1970s and 80s, an effort to integrate young Whooping Cranes with Sandhill Cranes, and form a migratory population that ran from Idaho to New Mexico. Unfortunately this program was unsuccessful and has been discontinued.

While Whooping Cranes are now protected from hunting and egg collection, habitat loss is still a threat, as the wetlands continue to diminish. While the current populations live in protected areas, their isolation could prove disastrous should a major environmental change affect that specific area.

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