Whooping Cranes: Endangered but with Hope

The National Wildlife Federation spearheaded the establishment of Endangered Species Day on the third Friday in May. To honor that, I want to share my experience with a Whooping Crane in the wild.  In February we took a trip to some of Florida’s wildlife hot spots, and found ourselves at Paines Prairie Preserve. If you haven’t been to any of Florida’s State Parks, you’re missing out!  We started by climbing an observation tower looking out over the vast prairie and were stopped in our tracks by the sounds of something calling: a flock of Sandhill Cranes. In their midst, a slightly larger, all white bird: a Whooping Crane!

From a Low of 22 Birds in the 1940s to 802 in 2021

Whooping Crane numbers were never really large: estimates in the 1800’s ranged from 1200 to 1500 birds.  Between habitat loss, hunting, egg collection and feather collecting, that number dropped to critically low numbers in the mid 20th century.  According to the International Crane Foundation

By the late 1930s, only two small flocks remained — one non-migratory flock in Louisiana and one migratory flock that wintered in southeastern Texas and summered in western Canada.  In 1940 a hurricane decimated the already small Louisiana population, and the number of Whooping Cranes in the wild dropped to just 21 birds by the mid-40s. In 1950 the last individual in the Louisiana population, “Mac,” was removed from the wild, leaving all remaining Whooping Cranes in the migratory flock that now numbered 34 birds.

From 1998 to 2004, scientists with the Florida Wildlife Commission released Whooping Cranes to try to establish a population there. 

Eventually, after deciding that the program was not generating the results they had hoped for, they relocated a number of birds to Louisiana.   As of 2021, there were still a handful (7) of birds in Florida, and we must have been looking at one of them. Mixed in with the flock of Sandhill Cranes were some deer, ducks, and other wildlife.

Check out this 2021 graphic that shows the numbers of Whooping Cranes left in the world.  Some herculean efforts have been put forth to save them. If you have a few minutes, the video below is a documentary about the cranes.

Sandhill Cranes are More Plentiful

Here in South Carolina, we’re more likely to see Sandhill cranes, which have been much more successful in keeping populations stable.  They also complete incredible migrations but can be found here in South Carolina~ there are even reports of them on the Isle of Palms and Cape Romain now and then.  We saw these birds in Florida:

But they gather in larger flocks along the Santee.

On our last morning in Montana last summer, we got a chance to see some Sandhill Cranes feeding in a field.

Celebrate Endangered Species Day

However you decide to observe Endangered species day, take a second to focus on some of the amazing nature all around us. Study, advocate, educate, and celebrate all of the fascinating and rare species that share this planet with us!