CRANES ARE A POSITIVE SIGN FOR ALL WILDLIFE
by Whit Gibbons
January 28, 2007
to National Public Radio (NPR) last week, "Record numbers of whooping
cranes have returned to the Texas coast for the winter." NPR noted
that "237 birds made the trek to Texas from Canada." In the
summer this main flock of the cranes will return to Canada for nesting.
One of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) success stories, for those interested
in preserving native wildlife, has been the whooping crane. Only 15 whooping
cranes were left in the world when the United States entered World War
II in 1941. When the San Antonio Zoo received its first wild-caught whooping
crane in 1956, which was believed to be one of only 16 remaining, it became
the only U.S. zoo involved in captive breeding. The zoo still has a small
number of the magnificent birds on display.
a captive breeding population, reared from eggs taken from nests in Canada,
was established at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When
the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, whooping cranes were near
the top of the list. By 1998, about 190 made the 2,600-mile flight from
Canada to Texas. So, in less than a decade, 47 more birds have been added
to the flock.
Adult whooping cranes are magnificent wading birds. White, with black
wing tips, they are the tallest bird in North America. Adults stand up
to five feet tall. In flight, with their long necks fully extended, the
birds make a long, sonorous sound that can be heard three miles away.
As with many other wading birds and waterfowl, whooping cranes spend the
winter in aquatic habitats in the South, migrating north in the spring
to nest. At their breeding grounds, they engage in dramatic and elaborate
courtship dances and rituals before mating.
cranes once nested as far south as Iowa and Illinois; the last known natural
nest in the United States was found in 1889. The Migratory Bird Treaty
Act of 1916 made it illegal to hunt cranes, but uncontrolled urban and
agricultural development eliminated all U.S. nesting sites. The nesting
area of the few remaining birds was discovered almost a half century later,
but not in the United States.
Canada established Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta and the Northwest
Territories, within a few hundred miles of the Arctic Circle. As area
bigger than Connecticut was set aside for the purpose of protecting the
bison herds that still remained in northern Canada, not to preserve whooping
cranes, because no one even knew they were there. In 1954 a helicopter
pilot accidentally discovered the last remaining nesting site of the big
birds. The wild cranes breed in Canada and spend the winters in Aransas
National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, an area placed under protection in 1937.
the USFWS became involved in a project to increase whooping crane numbers.
An experimental wild population was started at Grays Lake National Wildlife
Refuge in Idaho. Whooping crane eggs were placed in the nests of sandhill
cranes, which are also giant wading birds. The sandhill cranes served
as caring, though unsuspecting, foster parents, and the unaware foster
fledglings followed the sandhill cranes to New Mexico each winter. More
than 80 fledged during the first 15 years, but only a dozen or so survived
for various reasons. And, as far as I know, none has yet bred or appears
breeding programs, experiments with breeding populations in the field,
and protection of the natural habitats they require are some conservation
approaches applied to whooping cranes. All are being used, with varying
degrees of success. Not much else can be done at this point to try to
increase the numbers of a slow-breeding species like this. The USFWS projects
constitute a lot of effort to save a few birds and ensure their survival.
The success with this exceptional bird is admirable and attests to our
ability to create successful recovery programs for declining species.
To maintain biological diversity, we need to show equal concern for the
many other wildlife species that are in trouble. Better yet, let's start
protecting the environment now so last-ditch conservation efforts aren't
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