Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada protects the nesting habitat of the last remaining wild migratory flock of whooping cranes left in the world. Whooping cranes used to range across much of central North America, from the southern coast of Texas as far north as the Northwest Territories. Though never abundant, their numbers were thought to be around 1500 in the mid-1800’s. Human settlement subsequently destroyed much of their nesting habitat, and by 1941 the population had dropped to an all-time low of 21 birds. Whooping Cranes are classified as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and Parks Canada is working on its with recovery with national and international partners.
Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America. They stand up to 1.5 m tall, with a wingspan of 2 m or more. They are white in colour, with black wingtips that can be seen in flight, and long thin black legs. Their eyes are yellow, and they have a distinctive red crown on top of their head, along with horizontal black “cheeks”. Juvenile whooping cranes are white and cinnamon in colour.
Whooping cranes feed on insect larvae such as dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies, as well as on aquatic creatures such as snails, small clams, minnows, and frogs. Sometimes they will feed on larger prey such as snakes, mice or small birds. Dragonfly nymphs are an important food source for the chicks. The whoopers’ winter diet (after migrating to the southern coast of Texas) includes blue crabs, clams, crayfish, small fish, acorns, and small fruit.
The whooping cranes nest and raise their young in remote boggy reaches of Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada, far from human disturbance. Their meter-wide nests are made mostly from bulrushes and are built in the shallow waters of spruce-encircled ponds. A clutch of two eggs is laid in the spring and the parents take turns incubating. The eggs hatch in late May or early June. In autumn, the whooping cranes migrate 3500 km south to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf of Mexico in southern Texas.
After feeding and resting over the winter months, the birds begin their courtship rituals in early spring. The “dance of the whooping crane”, part of the courtship ritual, can be seen in Aransas just prior to their migration back to Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada for nesting. The whoopers start leaving Aransas in early April and begin arriving in Wood Buffalo three to four weeks later.
Whooping cranes are classified as endangered by the COSEWIC. The population of the Wood Buffalo – Aransas flock is 263 as of December 2010. The world population of whooping cranes is 568 as of December 2010. This number includes captive birds, a non-migratory flock in Florida, an introduced migratory flock (Wisconsin-Florida), and the Wood Buffalo-Aransas wild migratory flock.
At up to 1.5 m in height, the whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America - and they nest in North America's largest national park, Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada!
Whooping cranes used to range across much of central North America, from the southern coast of Texas as far north as the Northwest Territories. Though never abundant, their numbers were thought to be around 1500 in the mid-1800’s. Human settlement subsequently destroyed much of their nesting habitat, and by 1941 the population had dropped to an all-time low of 21 birds. At that time the location of their northern nesting grounds was unknown. It wasn’t until 1954 that the nesting grounds were discovered in a remote corner of Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada. There can be no doubt that the birds’ seclusion during their sensitive nesting period is what saved them from total extinction.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the early 1940's. The loss of whooping cranes as a species would not only have been very sad, but would also have reduced the biodiversity of wildlife in North America. While international recovery efforts have been successful in increasing the number of whooping cranes, these beautiful and unique birds remain endangered, requiring ongoing protection to survive.
International efforts to increase the whooping crane population have been ongoing for many years. These efforts include :
- Ongoing protection of nesting and wintering habitats.
- Establishment of a captive breeding program (To start this program, 225 eggs were collected from Wood Buffalo National Park between 1967 and 1996. Egg collection from the Wood Buffalo flock ceased in 1996).
- Annual surveys and monitoring of nests and chick productivity in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada.
- Research on the ecology of the birds’ existing nesting habitat to help with the selection of new reintroduction sites.
- Establishment of a non-migratory flock in Florida.
- Reintroduction of a second migratory flock (Wisconsin-Florida) using captive-raised birds. This process included teaching the captive-raised birds to migrate using ultralights.
While whooping crane populations continue to increase under this program, the whooping cranes are still vulnerable, especially while migrating. Potential threats during migration include hunters (the whoopers are sometimes mistaken for other bird species such as sandhill cranes) and power lines. At their wintering grounds in Aransas, there is a risk of coastal water pollution from commercial marine traffic.
Wood Buffalo National Park protects the nesting grounds of the last remaining wild migratory flock of whooping cranes. The whooping crane nesting area is classified as Zone 1 Special Preservation under the Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada Management Plan. Public access is prohibited due to the extreme sensitivity of the birds while they are nesting and raising their young.
Park resource conservation staff assist the Canadian Wildlife Service with ecological monitoring, research, and annual nesting surveys. The park also promotes the whooping crane in public education programs and nonpersonal media such as publications and interpretive signs. The Wetlands Interpretive Trail in the park features information about the whooping cranes and species at risk.
The presence of the whooping cranes in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada is very special, and is one reason why the park is a World Heritage Site. The whooping crane nesting area has also been designated by the Ramsar Convention as a Ramsar site, or Wetland of International Significance.
- Be a good steward of your land, and support the efforts of organizations who help protect the environment. Try to reduce your ecological footprint.
- Learn more about whooping cranes through reading or on the Internet.
- If you visit Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada, you can learn about whooping cranes on the Wetlands Interpretive Trail and at the Visitor Reception Centre in Fort Smith which features exhibits, publications, and videos.