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Crane Dance 9  Whooping Cranes in captivity at the International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI
Credit: NaturesFan1226 on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

We almost lost the whooping crane (Grus americana) forever. In 1941, only 23 living birds (16 in the wild) were known to exist. Today, thanks to some unconventional thinkers and bizarre methods, whooping crane numbers are closer to 600. Still, they are an endangered species.

When I was researching my recent beaver article, I found out that Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park (home to the world's largest beaver dam) is also the ancient nesting grounds of the whooping crane - the only place in the world where they still nest in the wild.

Whooping cranes follow ultralight aircraft into GeorgiaHeather Ray, Operation Migration via usfwssoutheast on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericAfter reading an October 6th, 2014 article by Megan Gannon in LiveScience titled Birds of a Feather: Whooping Cranes Need Parents More Like Them, I felt that Wood Buffalo National Park will become even more crucial to this precious bird's future.

According to Gannon's article, it appears that our human efforts (including Whooping crane costumes and aircraft-led migration) are falling short when it comes to parenting.

Whooping cranes that have been reared by humans-in-costume do not appear to have the same (or all of the) parenting skills as those who nest in the wild.

And it's completely understandable. I mean, it must be difficult to emulate a Whooping crane. Communication is, for the most part, non-verbal (even in humans). 

Whooping Crane Parents in the Wild Do a Better Job

Whooping Cranes in marsh in Texas
Credit: John Noll via usdagov on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Dr. George Archibald, Co-Founder & Senior Conservationist

And Dr. Ronald Sauey formed the International Crane Foundation (ICF)

To bring a bird back from the brink of extinction is an incredible accomplishment. For over 40 years, Canadian George Archibald has been doing precisely that. In 1968, Archibald received his undergraduate degree from Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia) and completed his Ph.D. at Cornell University in 1977.

In 1973, Archibald and a Cornell University colleague, Ronald Sauey, Ph.D., established the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Dr. Archibald has won numerous awards, was added to the UN's Global 500 Roll of Honour in 1987, and received the Order of Canada in 2013.

Dr. Archibald was instrumental in saving the whooping crane. He pioneered several techniques to raise and breed them (including the crane costumes worn by handlers). Human imprinting must be avoided with these precious birds.

A fascinating documentary to view is of George & Tex (who he worked with for three years). At the 8:00 minute mark is where Dr. Archibald talks about Tex to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

Today, the main reason that the whooping crane is struggling to survive is the loss of shallow wetland habitat.

Distribution Map of the Whooping CraneBy Cephas (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsFortunately, Wood Buffalo National Park is not the only natural nesting area. For the first time in 100 years, the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin is too, thanks to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Reintroduction Project

The key to the Whooping Crane distribution map shown at right:

Blue: breeding/summering

Green: year-round

Orange: wintering (non-breeding)

Grey: experimental year-round

Pink: migration path

Up next, enjoy a BBCWorldwide YouTube video narrated by my hero, Sir David Attenborough. This clip was uploaded February 12th, 2007 and examines the way people were raising Whooping cranes to return them to the wild.

Feeding and Raising Wild Baby Whooping Cranes

Narrated by Sir David Attenborough

Whooping Crane ChickInternational Crane Foundation via usfwshq on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericBack to Megan Gannon's article. It seems that captive-bred Whooping cranes are thriving in the wild and even mating.

But for some reason, they are having difficulty nesting and raising their young. Several pairs are abandoning their eggs.

Scientists are trying out a new method called "parent-rearing" where captive whooping crane parents care for, feed, and exercise the chicks after they hatch (instead of humans in costume).

Fortunately, whooping-crane parents will "adopt" other chicks. And, so far, two Whooping crane "parent-reared" birds have migrated successfully.

It is hoped that good parenting habits will be passed along through these adopted chicks.

How Long Until Scientists Know This Method is Working?

Whooping cranes usually nest when they are about 3 years old. So, it will take a few years to determine whether this new method is working - or at least helping the Whooping Cranes care for their young.

As Shown in Columbia Pictures film "Fly Away Home"

One of the most touching short snippets I could find for this article was published on July 24th, 2014 by OperationMigration. With ultralight aircraft, Operation Migration pilots guide captive-hatched Whooping cranes along a planned migration route that begins in Wisconsin and ends in Florida.

I was incredibly touched by the quote at the end of this short video which reads:

"As pilots, we have a love for the creatures that have taught us the art of flying. Now they need our help. How can we refuse?"

Operation Migration - Safeguarding the Whooping Crane

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