Call of the Whooping Crane

July 2019

By Michelle Hatwood

Every conservationist should experience the feeling of releasing an animal into wild habitat—it’s a difficult emotion to describe. A combination of excitement, happiness, and accomplishment is mixed with nervousness and worry.

Ex situ breeding programs to support in situ populations are not new, but they are relatively rare in relation to the number of threatened species in zoos and aquariums. The whooping crane, however, is the exception to this norm. Almost driven to extinction in the 1940s with a population low of a mere 15 birds, the whooping crane has been part of one of the longest-running managed breeding and release programs in the world. The migratory whooping crane has historically ranged from the southern-most regions of the U.S. up to southern Canadian provinces, while Louisiana has also been home to a historical non-migratory population.  

As demonstrated by the production of captive whooping cranes to reestablish wild cranes in Wisconsin and Louisiana, there are undoubted many other species critically endangered in the wild that can benefit from following the lead of the whooping cranes.”  George Archibald, head of the World Conservation Union on crane survival and founder of the International Crane Foundation

The species is named for its distinctive whooping call—a call that disappeared from the Louisiana wetlands in 1950, when the last wild individual in the state was captured and transported to the newly established Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas as a last-ditch effort to save the species. Since then, efforts to recover this species have expanded political and international boundaries, and, though the recovery has been met with challenges, the wild population is showing a glimmer of hope.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the International Whooping Crane Recovery Plan, the goal of which is to protect the whooping crane and its habitat and develop an ecologically and genetically stable population. Conservation efforts are slowly paying off—there are currently more than 800 birds worldwide, including 165 in human care, more than 400 in the migratory population, and 75 in Louisiana’s non-migrating wild flock.

As one of the most endangered native bird species in the U.S., the whooping crane was a logical choice as one of the first species selected in the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction program. “The whooping crane program is a great example of collaboration between government agencies and AZA to save species from extinction,” said Mike Mace, SAFE program leader for the whooping crane and director of animal collections and strategy for San Diego Zoo Global in San Diego, Calif.

The Louisiana flock, like the migratory flock, started from birds hatched and raised in managed breeding centers in the U.S. and Canada. In 2011, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries chose the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Louisiana as a protected habitat in which to release birds, returning the call of the whooping crane to the Louisiana wetlands.  

In Louisiana, Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, La., has long been committed to whooping crane conservation, with efforts dating back to the early 1950s. Since 2000, when the whooping crane was added to the collection of Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, Audubon’s offsite conservation breeding center, Audubon’s whooping crane conservation efforts have seen significant growth and success. Between 2000 and 2016, Audubon’s focus was using natural and artificial means to produce eggs for shipment to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center for hatching, rearing, and eventual release.

In 2017, however, USFWS asked Audubon to prepare to start rearing chicks as well, with the goal of significantly increasing the number of birds for wild release. Soon after, Patuxent announced that, after 51 years, it was closing its crane programs. As one of the largest producers of whooping cranes, this was a major blow to whooping crane conservation efforts. Audubon, as well as several other AZA zoos, stepped up to fill the vacuum closing Patuxent would create.

Patuxent needed to place more than 70 whooping cranes, and though some small groups were transferred to other AZA facilities, Audubon committed to expanding its operations and taking on the bulk of the birds.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relies on partners like Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center to recover many of our iconic endangered species, such as the whooping crane. The species would not be seeing the success it is without the help of the AZA community,” said Wade Harrell, the U.S. whooping crane coordinator for USFWS.

In October 2018, USGS and Audubon collaborated with the U.S. Coast Guard, USFWS, the New Orleans Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, and Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas, to transport 33 whooping cranes from Patuxent, Md., to New Orleans on a Coast Guard plane accompanied by staff from Audubon, USGS, and Dallas Zoo. Three of the birds went on to be transferred to other AZA-accredited facilities in nearby states, while the rest remained at Audubon’s 15-acre Survival Center crane complex.

It was a successful, but complicated, endeavor made possible only through the many partnerships AZA zoos maintain with U.S. government agencies. The Survival Center now houses a flock of 35 whooping cranes, ten of which will be transported to the Dallas Zoo in late summer once their new breeding center complex is complete. Moving forward, northern breeding centers, such as Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta, and the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., will concentrate on releasing birds into the eastern migratory group while breeding centers in the southern U.S., such as Audubon, will produce birds for release into the Louisiana flock overseen by LDWF.

“It’s impossible to undertake this type of restoration project without collaboration,’’ LDWF Secretary, Jack Montoucet said. “We are blessed to have multiple partners working alongside us to restore the majestic whooping crane to Louisiana. We’re able to call upon them, and them upon us, to seek the expertise necessary to make this endeavor successful. None of us could do this alone.’’

The impact of Audubon Nature institute and its partners’ long-term commitment to the whooping crane can be seen in the increased number of birds in the wild that were raised in managed care and wild hatchings. The resurgence of the whooping crane is just one example of the amazing things being accomplished through the hard work and dedication of AZA members. Together, we can save whooping cranes from extinction.

Michelle Hatwood is the general curator at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center.


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