Whooping Crane Restoration

Science Center Objects

At more than five feet tall with brilliant white plumage, black primary feathers, a red cap, and yellow eyes, the highly endangered Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is one of the most spectacular birds native to North America. In 1942 there were fewer than 20 birds in the flock that migrates from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. An additional six cranes were alive in Louisiana, bringing the total global population to only 22 individuals. The non-migratory Louisiana flock died out a few years later; hence all Whooping Cranes now alive derive from a core flock of only 16 birds. Whooping Cranes were likely uncommon even before hunting and habitat loss reduced them to dangerously low numbers. The vanishingly small population of 16 in 1942 represents an extreme genetic and demographic bottleneck that few species survive.

Biologists at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center began what is now the largest Whooping Crane captive breeding program from 12 eggs collected from the wild in 1967. The Patuxent flock now has over 60 adult Whooping Cranes, including 29 pairs, who lay an average of 40 eggs each breeding season.

Patuxent biological technicians raise over 30 chicks each year.  The majority of the chicks are released in Louisiana to join the non-migratory flock of Whooping Cranes.   The remaining chicks are trained to follow an ultra-light aircraft on migration from Wisconsin down to Florida and become part of the migratory flock of Whooping Cranes.

Young Whooping Crane

Young Whooping Crane, Grus americana, with costumed caretakers in the background. (Credit: Jonathan L. Fiely, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Public domain.)

Why is the Whooping Crane Endangered?

While several factors have contributed to the current status of Whooping Cranes, the primary reasons are habitat loss and past rampant, unregulated hunting for their meat and feathers. 

Whooping Cranes live in wetlands and the success of Whooping Crane populations depend on the health of wetland ecosystems.  Over time, wetlands across North America have been drained for agriculture and damaged through development, oil and gas exploration, and the construction of intercoastal waterways.

Whooping Cranes have also been hunted, both for their meat and plumage.  The long, beautiful feathers were fashionable adornments to hats and clothing. Humans have also robbed crane nests because collectors pay high prices for rare eggs.  And while shooting the endangered cranes is now against the law, the bodies of Whooping Cranes are occasionally discovered after being shot.

Since humans contributed to the decline of the Whooping Crane, many people now feel that we have a moral duty to help this magnificent bird. Our natural heritage of biological diversity - all of the species of plants and animals - is a precious resource.  Our future quality of life depends on how we take care of our natural inheritance.

History of the Patuxent Breeding Program

Historically, the Whooper's breeding range stretched from Alberta, Canada to the southern end of Lake Michigan. The wintering grounds included parts of northern Mexico, the Texas Gulf coast, and parts of the Atlantic coast. There were groups of non-migratory whoopers that lived in Louisiana, and possibly some other areas in the southeastern United States. There was a sharp decline of the population of whoopers starting in the 1800s due to man-made changes of habitat, hunting, and feather and egg collecting.

In 1937, fewer than 20 birds remained, all in a population that wintered in Texas. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in that year to protect the Whooping Crane and its habitat.  By 1941, biologists at zoos tried to breed Whooping Cranes in captivity.  In 1966, biologists at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center began a captive breeding program from 12 eggs collected from the wild in an effort to increase flock numbers. 

Whooping Crane Chick with puppet head

Whooping Crane Chick with puppet head. (Credit: Jonathan L. Fiely, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Public domain.)

Along with the collected eggs, Canus, a young Whooping Crane, named as a symbol of cooperation between Canada and the United States, was a long-time participant in both the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) and the USGS efforts to preserve and restore wild Whooping Crane populations in North America.  Canus was rescued from the wild with a fractured wing in 1964 when there were just 42 Whooping Cranes left in world.  After a period of time in Colorado, Canus was shipped to Maryland in 1966 to become the first Whooping Crane in the endangered species recovery program at Patuxent.  He sired a large portion of the Whooping Cranes in captivity and is the progenitor of many that have been released in the wild. The first Whooping Crane to fledge in the US in 60 years, is a descendent of Canus.