WHOOPING CRANES - AMERICA'S FAVORITE FOSTER CHILDREN


Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS - Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press) (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5).

Endangered species are always top priorities on every birder’s mind. Through the years, there have been successful restorations that should be celebrated—none more so than the iconically handsome whooping crane.


Way back in 1975 when the worldwide population of whooping cranes was dangerously low—fewer than sixty were alive in the wild—one of the most heralded and controversial wildlife experiments ever was conducted under the direction of US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Dr. Rod Drewein. A second flock of Rocky Mountain whooping cranes was started by taking eggs from nesting whoopers in Wood Buffalo Park in northern Canada and placing them in the nests of sandhill cranes—the whooper’s close cousin—in Idaho’s Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge.


When the transplanted eggs hatched, the whooper chicks immediately imprinted on their sandhill “foster parents” and followed them down to their wintering grounds in southern New Mexico. Within ten years, some thirty adult whoopers were joining seventeen thousand sandhill cranes in making the semiannual migrations between nesting sites at Grays Lake and New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.


I caught up with the massive migrating sandhill crane flock in 1984 when they made a mid-February refueling stopover in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The morning was teeth-chattering cold—twenty-five below zero—justifying the San Luis Valley’s reputation as the icebox of the nation. Ice crystals hung in the frigid air and penetrated each patch of exposed skin like a million tiny daggers as we sat shivering in our vehicles awaiting the dawn.


As soon as the sun began to crease the mountainous horizon, we drove through the gates of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. After a few miles of bouncing along the refuge’s tundra-hard dirt roads, we turned a sharp left and there they were—thousands of sandhill cranes feeding in the grainfields and alternately lunging awkwardly up into the air and then floating softly back to earth in the gathering light of morning.


Then we saw it—right in the middle of all those sleet-gray sandhills stood one snow-white bird—a whooping crane! Yes, it was only one whooper, but it was a sight to behold, savor, and then cherish forever. We were staring directly at one of fewer than one hundred wild whooping cranes in the whole world—our trip was now a total success!


While Dr. Drewien’s bold experiment never produced the desired second flock of whoopers, crane researchers kept pursuing their elusive dream. The latest ongoing effort is called Operation Migration, which uses ultralight aircraft piloted by men dressed up to look like adult whoopers. The ultralights lead the young cranes from their nesting grounds in Wisconsin down to wintering grounds in north Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. To date, as a result of Operation Migration, a backup flock of more than forty wild whooping cranes is successfully migrating through eastern North America.


Photo Caption & Credit: A single Whooping Crane (Grus americana) mingles with his sandhill "foster parents" in a cornfield in Colorado's Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo © Budd Titlow's NATUREGRAPHS