How Whooping Cranes Learned to Migrate By Following an Airplane

There were only 15 cranes left in the world. Then people stepped up.

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Nov 8 2016, 9:00pm

Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

In 1941, overhunting and habitat loss from development had devastated the global whooping crane population. Only one flock of 15 whooping cranes, which nested at Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada and migrated every year to Texas, was left anywhere in the world. (In the 1880s, they numbered around 1,400.) The bird teetered on the brink of extinction.

Whooping cranes once thrived along the Gulf Coast. It was thought there were thousands of flocks before European settlers came to the US—between 15,000 and 20,000 of the birds before the 1400s. Their beautiful white feathers and eggs made them a target for hunting, and as the US population grew, cities paved over crane habitat.

Once researchers realized the birds were extremely endangered, local, federal and international groups united to protect the one remaining flock and encourage it to breed.

Whooping crane reintroduction. Image: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Flickr

Biologists tried to introduce bred cranes into states where cranes had died out to solidify new flocks, but early efforts failed, and the flocks died. Researchers realized these birds needed to be taught how to migrate north during the summer months to nest, but there weren't any adults left who knew the way.

So they got creative. In a scene fit for Hollywood, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team used a small airplane in 2001 to show the young whooping cranes how to fly from western Florida to Wisconsin and back. Operation Migration oversees the project today.

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As of 2009 there was a thriving flock of 77 whooping cranes that flew that route every year. In total, today there are about 600 whooping cranes in the world, including about 160 in zoos, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Whooping crane chick. Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In addition to the original Texas flock and the migratory Florida flock (although this year is the first that the birds won't follow a plane while migrating), there is a migratory flock that goes from New Mexico to Idaho each year, according to Nature Canada. There is also a non-migratory flock in Central Florida.

"Whooping cranes are still critically endangered, but there is reason to be hopeful," according to the National Wildlife Federation. "Innovative scientists, like those from the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, are thinking of new ways to protect this fragile species and make sure that the story of the whooping crane does not end on a tragic note."

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