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The Whooping Crane’s cloudy future

In the 1970s and early ’80s, when the species numbered fewer than 100 birds, Archibald famously danced with a captive female crane named Tex that had imprinted on people, and she eventually laid a viable egg. The story produced an invitation for Archibald to appear on “The Tonight Show” in June 1982. Sadly, the night before Archibald went on the show, Tex was killed when raccoons got into her enclosure. He told the news to a shocked Johnny Carson and his vast audience.

Tex’s son, Gee Whiz, would go on to sire many birds, including some that have been released in Wisconsin and Florida.

Over the decades, as captive breeding populations were established and the wild flock that winters in Texas and breeds at Wood Buffalo grew, biologists wanted an insurance policy. Or two. The small wild flock was (and still is) vulnerable to a catastrophe, such as a hurricane or an oil spill in the shipping channel next to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. So, government agencies and nonprofits have worked to establish other breeding populations.

In the mid-1970s, they tried cross-fostering eggs in the nests of Sandhill Cranes in Idaho, but while the Whoopers learned to migrate with their cousins, they also imprinted on Sandhills. The Whooping Cranes failed to mate, and the project was discontinued.

In 1993, a non-migratory population was established near Kissimmee, Florida, and through 2004, 289 captive-bred birds were released. However, high mortality and low reproductive success led to the project being discontinued. In 2018, 14 cranes remained, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a plan to relocate at least a few of them to a more recently established population in Louisiana. In February 2019, a 21-year-old female and her 4-year-old daughter were caught and transferred to the Louisiana flock.

Operation Migration

The third attempt to create a new breeding population began in 2001, when young cranes raised by costumed handlers were trained to follow ultralight aircraft along a migration route from Wisconsin to Florida. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a coalition of government agencies and nonprofits, oversees the flock’s management.

The birds were led south by the crew of Operation Migration, a Canada-based nonprofit. The sight of endangered birds following one-person ultralights garnered a lot of media attention and a loyal following of “craniacs” online.

“For 15 years, Operation Migration pilots and a dedicated ground crew led Whooping Cranes on a journey toward survival,” the group says on its website. “During those years, we contributed more than $10 million and covered 17,457 miles with a total of 186 trusting Whooping Cranes trailing off our wingtips.

“Each of the cranes that survived the winter period in Florida returned north the following spring and continued to migrate annually thereafter.”

Nevertheless, breeding success was limited, and the Fish and Wildlife Service decided in early 2016 to discontinue the ultralight-guided flocks in favor of other release methods. Operation Migration continued to be involved until August 2018, when it resigned from the WCEP over disagreements with the management of the flock. Operation Migration dissolved last December.

In early September 2019, the Eastern Migratory Population numbered 85 cranes, not including one chick that hadn’t yet fledged. Out of 19 chicks hatched in the wild this summer, five were still alive on July 9 and three were alive on September 1. The flock’s current size is one of the lowest totals in recent years.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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