By Andi Cooper
Like the wood duck, which was thought to be destined for extinction in the early 1900s, whooping cranes are a living example of conservation success. Still one of the rarest birds in North America, whooping crane populations have increased from around 20 birds in the 1940s to around 600 in captivity and in the wild today. These large, nearly solid-white birds inspire people from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast with their graceful flight and distinctive call.
The largest wild population, numbering about 300 birds, breeds in Canada and migrates through the United States to their wintering grounds along the Texas Gulf Coast. Ducks Unlimited's habitat work throughout North America has benefited these majestic birds, which depend on many of the same wetland habitats frequented by waterfowl. An eastern population breeds in Wisconsin and winters from Indiana to Florida, particularly around Alabama's Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to several DU habitat-improvement projects. A small nonmigratory population exists in Louisiana and relies heavily on the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, where DU and partners have implemented several wetland-enhancement projects.
As whooping crane populations expand, they face two primary challenges: habitat loss and human-caused mortality. As with most wildlife, the survival of these birds depends on the actions of people. Waterfowl hunters have played an important role in providing habitat for the continuing recovery of whooping crane populations. Habitat conservation efforts supported by hunters through duck stamp sales and DU's conservation work have helped whooping cranes since the late 1930s.
Waterfowl hunters can also help inform scientists about expanding whooping crane populations by submitting firsthand reports of sightings. They can also report suspicious activity and suspected acts of poaching to authorities. In the past two years, there have been 10 documented whooping crane shootings, most of which appear to have been intentional criminal acts. Adult whooping cranes have various characteristics in common with wood storks, great egrets, snow geese, and American white pelicans. Juvenile whooping cranes, in particular, can be mistaken for sandhill cranes, which can be legally hunted in some states. Because the whooping crane population is so small and the birds reproduce slowly, each individual loss can have a dramatic impact on the recovery of this species. So keep a sharp lookout for whooping cranes this fall and inform other hunters-especially beginners-that these endangered birds may be passing through.
For more information, visit the International Crane Foundation at http://savingcranes.org.