Whooping cranes are large attractive birds. The adult is white with dark legs, a long dark bill, and a red crown on top of its head. Black wing tips are visible when the birds are in flight. Fully grown, they are the tallest of all North American birds. They live in marshes, swamps, and other wetlands, eating aquatic creatures such as frogs, as well as insects, seeds, and berries. Many things threaten their survival, including habitat loss, power line collisions, pollution, predators, and disease.
Whooping Cranes are the most endangered of all crane species, with only about 500 birds alive in the world in 2006. This number is up from an estimated 20 birds in the 1940's as a result of captive crane breeding programs – eggs are taken from nests that contain more than one egg, hatched in captivity, and the young birds are released back into the wild when they are old enough to survive on their own.
Although the overall numbers of Whooping cranes are increasing as a result of the captive crane breeding programs, many of the captive reared birds have failed to reproduce in the wild. Birds that were raised by adults of another crane species failed to mate with their own species and a non-migratory flock established in Florida has largely failed to raise young successfully. Migratory birds released in the Northeast have failed to breed or lost eggs to predators before they hatched. There is hope that this may change, however: the wild birds from crane breeding programs are still young and may simply need more experience before they can successfully raise chicks in the wild.
In 2006, two chicks hatched in the wild in Wisconsin, in a wetland near the captive crane breeding program that their parents had been released from. If these chicks survive, it will be a stone, and possibly the beginning of a migratory breeding wild flock of Whooping Cranes. This would be a major step forward in the recovery of the species.
Whooping Cranes are a long way from full recovery. A population of 500 birds is still very small, and this number is increasing very slowly, with very few birds born in the wild each year. But we are getting closer to success with the crane promoting programs and, if we are lucky, a day may come again when residents of much of North America will be able to look up and see a flock of large white birds with bold black wingtips pass gracefully overhead.