Although many people are familiar with the common Sandhill Crane, Whooping Cranes remain much more of a mystery to most people and with good reason. It wasn’t that long ago (1940s) that the worldwide population of Whooping Cranes dropped to only 15 individual. With the protection of being classified as an endangered species and the work of many conservation organizations, the total number of Whooping Cranes has climbed to just over 300 individuals. This wild population breeds in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta and Northwest Territories, Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast in Texas. These birds have started their migration through the Great Plains and four of them have already arrived at Aransas! You can read about their arrival here on the US FWS website.
Although this population has grown, having only one flock of Whooping Cranes exposes the species to many threats such as an illness wiping out most of the flock or a hurricane hitting their wintering ground in Texas. To combat these threats, the decision was made to create a migratory eastern flock as well. This was no small undertaking and has required the cooperation of a multitude of not-for-profits, individuals, and government agencies. One of the major players in this process is Operation Migration. No matter how successful people are at raising Whooping Cranes, the cranes will never migrate without being shown the way since young cranes learn their migration route by traveling with their parents. This is where Operation Migration comes in! They have pioneered the use of ultra-light aircraft leading the young cranes south for the first time. After breeding the cranes in captivity at facilities in Alberta, Maryland, and Wisconsin, the cranes are all taken to Wisconsin where they will get acquainted with the aircraft. This method has proved to be quite successful and since 1999 many Whooping Cranes have learned their migration route this way. As the population slowly increased from this method, small groups of young cranes have now been released with adult cranes so that they can learn their migration directly from other cranes.
This whole process is orchestrated and monitored by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership which is a collection of 17 organizations that are all working to help ensure that they Whooping Crane won’t go extinct.
The new class of Eastern population birds should be on the move soon. You can see the planned flight path here and also follow along with the journey on Operation Migration’s Field Journal! If you do happen to see a Whooping Crane during this migration season, please don’t publicize your sighting. Enjoy watching the crane from a distance and be sure to report the sighting to Operation Migration! Unfortunately there have been many instances where the cranes have been harmed so it’s best to keep your sightings private.