Over the last 40 years a series of reintroduction projects have been developed to establish new wild Whooping Crane populations in North America. The projects have had varying success, but as each project builds on previous attempts we are learning what techniques work most effectively.
Today, as a result of years of dedication, two additional Whooping Crane populations have been established. The first, numbering around 100 birds, migrate through the eastern United States; while the second, a non-migratory flock on the species’ historic range in southern Louisiana, numbers approximately 49 individuals. In 2006 and 2016 the first wild chicks successfully fledged in these reintroduced populations – symbols of hope for the future of Whooping Crane conservation.
Florida Non-Migratory Population
Under the guidance of the Whooping Crane Recovery Plan, in 1993 biologists began a project to reintroduce Whooping Cranes to Florida. The cranes were raised in captivity by adult Whooping Cranes, or by biologists dressed in crane costumes to prevent the birds from imprinting incorrectly (biologists learned this lesson from initial reintroduction efforts in Idaho twenty years earlier – see right side bar). This population was non-migratory, because the cranes were released in Florida and never taught a migration route.
In 2002, a pair from this flock hatched and fledged a chick – the first wild Whooping Crane chick to hatch from this reintroduction effort and the first in the United States since 1939. However, reproduction was slower than anticipated, and mortality rates were high, primarily due to predation. Drought and development were additional factors affecting this population, and as a result reintroduction efforts in Florida ended in 2008 and approximately 14 Whooping Cranes remain in Florida.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership
Building upon experience gained through the earlier Rocky Mountain and Florida reintroductions, in 2001 a new project to restore a migratory Whooping Crane population to eastern North America was initiated. The project is being undertaken by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), of which the International Crane Foundation is a founding member.
WCEP has used several different methods to reintroduce Whooping Cranes and teach the young birds their migratory route from Wisconsin to the southeastern United States, including costume-rearing chicks by staff for ultralight-led migration, and release in the fall with wild cranes, called Direct Autumn Release. Changes in the Partnership’s rearing and reintroduction methods seek to limit the amount of time chicks spend with costumed staff while emphasizing as much interaction as possible with adult Whooping Cranes (click here to learn more about these changes).
To achieve this goal of increasing the interaction of our captive-reared chicks with adult cranes, in 2016 three of our adult Whooping Crane pairs raised chicks without the use of costumed staff. Prior to their first fall migration, the parent-reared chicks are released in Wisconsin near wild Whooping Crane pairs or groups. Our goal is for the adults to “adopt” the young birds and teach the chicks their migratory route. This release method has been tested in Wisconsin with Whooping Crane chicks raised by our partners at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland with promising results. Click here to learn more about this rearing and release method.
Our staff is continuing to costume-rear Whooping Crane chicks at our chick-rearing facility for the Louisiana reintroduction. Due to the still small, but growing, size of the Louisiana flock, protocols for raising chicks for reintroduction in this population continue to focus on costume-rearing techniques that we have used successfully in the past.