In 1941, only 21 whooping cranes existed in the world, but through decades of painstaking efforts the endangered whooping cranes now number some 650 in the wild.
At least 500 of those whooping cranes survive in the Wood Buffalo Aransas Texas flock, which migrates through Saskatchewan twice yearly, although the exact number won’t be available until after counts are completed later this winter.
Brian Johns, a board member of the International Whooping Crane Conservation Association, said this growth in population acts as proof that conservation efforts can help to restore critically endangered species to higher populations.
“Whooping cranes have been endangered for quite some time. All the birds we have currently are related to three females,” Johns said. “It shows that conservation efforts can bring a species back from the brink of extinction, however; it is very costly and takes a lot of time. If we can save a species such as the whooping crane from extinction, then there is hope for other species as well.”
Each spring and fall whooping cranes migrate through Saskatchewan to, and from, their wintering grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast and Wood Buffalo National Park which is located on the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
According to Johns this past fall, 151 whooping cranes were observed near Marcelin, north of Saskatoon. This is the largest congregation of whooping cranes sighted in one bunch in over 100 years. Production of young was lower than average in 2018, with only six young spotted in the large flock. A total of 24 young fledged in 2018.
Over the years, captive breeding of whooping cranes has been successful, with eggs or offspring being introduced in four locations in the United States to create additional populations of whoopers. Two of these re-establishment programs failed in Idaho and Florida, while two others achieved limited success in Wisconsin and Louisiana.
“There probably were never very many whooping cranes, the population estimates from the early 1800s may have been 10,000 birds. In the 1860s the population was estimated to be down to about 1,500 or 1,600 birds,” Johns said.
“The birds nested through the Canadian prairies, into Alberta, through south-central Saskatchewan and Manitoba down into the U.S in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. All that land was settled, in the U.S. in the early 1800s and in Canada in the early 1900s, and with that settlement birds were shot for food, wetlands were drained for agriculture and it was just a culmination of factors.”
Johns said there are about 100 birds in the Eastern Migratory Flock summering in Wisconsin and another 50 birds in a non-migratory flock in Louisiana. Another 15 remain in Florida.
There are about 165 birds in captivity, with just over 115 of those being breeding birds that are producing offspring for the reintroductions. Those birds are located in Wisconsin, Calgary, Louisiana and Washington, DC. About 50 non-breeders are scattered in zoos and wildlife parks in the United States.
Johns noted it is likely the birds will return to the Marcelin area again in the future, as they tend to flock to areas which have agricultural fields and wetlands.
“Most often in the spring they just stop for a day or two and continue their migration, but in the fall that’s the major time when they stage in Saskatchewan feeding up on waste-grain to build up their energy reserves before continuing their migration south,” Johns said.
“The Marcelin area…has been used on and off for probably the last 15 years on a regular basis. The last few years around the Marcelin area seems to be where the biggest concentrations are. Ten years ago a big flock of whooping cranes would have been 25 or 30 birds but this flock of 150 birds, that was just something incredible.”
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