Clare McCullough


The Whooping Cranes’ Survival Against All Odds

Hemlock, a Floridian Female Whooping crane is often seen side by side to her new mate, Grasshopper. Grasshopper’s home is in Baraboo, WI a place known for its environmentalism. Aldo Leopold’s Shack and Farm is allegedly where Leopold spent the summers writing the Sand County Almanac. Hemlock’s new home, Grasshopper’s marsh has water in which knobby knees can reflect with tall grasses: Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The Horicon Refuge has now contributed to a 20-year long effort to reintroduce Whooping cranes back into the marshes of the Midwest.

For the Whooping crane, population size has been a difficult thing to reckon with. As of February 2018, the crane’s total population broke it’s 700 ceiling. Due to habitat loss and human poaching, in 1941 the number used to be just 21 wild and two captive whooping cranes. According to Operation Migration, it was always a rare bird numbering at 1,400 in 1860 but is still endangered. North America’s tallest crane can be just under five feet tall.

The wetlands on which Whooping cranes spend their lives are found at the intersection of land and water. A bird on the edge, it’s current habitat rests between the United States and Canada. These countries’ governments and non-profits have coordinated a sustained effort for conservation of the species. In Wisconsin’s case, Horicon Marsh’s wildlife biologist is Hillary Thompson. In her interview with UWUM, Thompson stated that using a jet to transport a whole family of the cranes, who have wingspans up to 7 feet, is a temporary set-back to migration patterns that will bring long-term benefits. Other than the captive birds, there are four different flocks that biologists have recorded.

The main wild population breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northwestern Canada and have been spotted in wetlands of Texas’s coasts and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Although not all Whooping crane flocks migrate, the Wood Buffalo/Aranas flock’s mass movement is most often seen in assemblies of 2-5 birds. There are two non-migratory flocks, one in Florida, where biologists had stopped reintroducing birds in 2008 due to survival and reproduction issues and one in Louisiana.

A notable aspect of this species is that there is a human-raised flock. That flock spends its summers in Wisconsin to its winter-grounds Florida. Currently of the 600 birds 100 make this flock their home. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC), “Each winder since 2001, whooping cranes have been led by ultra-light aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida.” Operation Migration’s attempts to guide the crane’s migration ended after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 cited due to concerns that the strategy was “too artificial” Despite this, the ultimate goal for the flock was to make the it more self-reliant. Operation Migration and other organizations like Horicon’s Refuge have successfully reintroduced whooping cranes who avoid humans. Now, the ulta-light aircraft is a symbol of conservation.

All in all, there is only one wild self-sustaining flock left in North America. Whooping cranes, have only just met the 700 mark and illegal shootings continue to be a significant obstacle, especially for the Louisiana population. The now-dissolved non-profit Operation Migration had played a fundamental 15-year role in studying and implementing human-guided migration which has shown to stabilize the population. The two new chicks now living in Baraboo, WI have the future to look forward to. I see this as proof that humans will not fail those “ 186 trusting Whooping cranes tailing off our wingtips” without a fight.

Despite the obstacles and how much farther we have to go, in my mind, this is a success story of humanity.

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