It’s estimated there were over 10,000 Whooping Cranes (Gruiformes: Gruidae: Grus americana) living in North America prior to European discovery and settlement. Subsequent decades of habitat loss and overhunting decimated their population. By 1941 Whooping Cranes were one of the rarest and most critically-endangered animals in the world, with only 15-20 known individuals in existence.
Although once on the brink of extinction, conservation efforts have helped this tallest North American bird down the road to recovery. Today there are still only a few hundred in the world, and although they remain endangered the future looks promising. Their population has increased at an average rate of 4% per year, but they do continue to face challenges.
Habitat loss from human encroachment continues to be an ongoing threat to this species’ survival. The isolated marshes, swamps, and ponds they prefer have shrunk in the face of development.
In spite of stiff penalties these cranes are still hunted to some extent, sometimes by malicious individuals and sometimes by hunters who ignorantly mistake them for game species.
Captive-bred, introduced animals can also have trouble acclimating to the wild. Non-profit groups like Operation Migration help to teach new cranes their traditional migration routes by leading them with ultralight aircraft. The US Fish & Wildlife Service also continuously marks and tracks individuals to monitor their progress.
Although incapable of cross-breeding, Whooping Cranes often form associations with much more common Sandhill Cranes (Gruiformes: Gruidae: Grus canadensis), perhaps seeking community associations in the absence of their kin. In the past Whooping Cranes raised by Sandhills imprinted on their foster parents and would only attempt mating with Sandhills rather than their own species.
Although human interference has long harmed the survival of this magnificent species, today many people have helped to affect them in a positive way. The hard work of numerous individuals, combined with the birds’ own will to survive, has brought them back from the edge of extinction. Although their survival remains tenuous, the ongoing efforts to save them remain an optimistic symbol of conservation.