The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is North America’s tallest bird, standing a little over five feet (about 1.6 meters) in height. Years ago, I had the wondrous privilege of standing face to face with these magnificent birds inside one of the large enclosures away from public view at the International Crane Foundation, at Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Foundation is part of a massive, binational network of various government and non-government agencies and organizations that have, by dint of enormous effort over more than 80 years, and at great cost, prevented this species from going extinct. It is still endangered, and still in perilous need of help from humans.
When the first humans arrived in the western hemisphere around 13,000 years ago, there were many large species of birds and mammals – the so-called ice-age megafauna – that did not survive contact with that most deadly of species, us. Over the centuries camels, ground sloths, horses, a giant condor, stork, turkey, flamingo, swan, and much else, were exterminated. But the Whooping Crane survived until new waves of humans arrived with even deadlier weapons, exterminating still more species, big and small.
It has been estimated that there were still around ten thousand or more Whooping Cranes when Europeans arrived in North America, but we will never know for sure. By 1941 there were 21 wild, and 2 captive, Whooping Cranes left. Nesting grounds of remaining wild birds were unknown, after a storm ended breeding by about a dozen non-migratory birds in Louisiana. Much later they were discovered breeding in small numbers in Wood Buffalo National Park in northwestern Canada. Given such a disjunct range I suspect they might once have been quite abundant in regions between those two known nest sites, thousands of kilometers apart and in completely different ecosystems.
The extent of the recovery program is far too vast to describe here, and involved a massive public education campaign, essential since some people find large animals to be irresistible targets, and the International Crane Foundation estimates that nearly 20 percent of Whooping Crane deaths among the birds re-introduced in the eastern migratory population are from shooting. High tension wires and storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that are resulting from climate change or other hazards take their toll.
Captive breeding and release only works if done with great care employing painfully won expertise. It has been estimated that it costs around U.S. $100,000 for each crane captive-raised and released to the wild. My personal view is that there is great need to focus on protecting all wildlife, including the most common, to prevent them from becoming endangered in the first place. The number of endangered or critically endangered species of birds in the world is too rapidly approaching 700, most in places where the kind of commitment in time and money made to the Whooping Crane is unthinkable.
Whooping Cranes are ground-nesters, in marshes, or muskegs, and lay one or two eggs, which are incubated for about a month, the female doing most, but not all, of the brooding. It’s rare for more than one chick, if that, to survive to maturity, and they stay with the parents for about a year. However, adults can live one or two decades in the wild.
This is an oil painting on compressed hardboard and is approximately 30 by 24 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731