Whooping Cranes from Despair to Hope to Progress

*************History Briefs compiled by Whooping Crane Conservation Association************ 

The recorded history of whooping cranes has ranged from beliefs that the birds would become extinct to efforts to restore the flock. Whooping Crane Conservation Association member Pam Bates has researched the literature and come across some interesting material. Some of Pam’s findings are posted here for your interest:

Despair:   The following is from the Gutenburg Project and dated 1913.

OUR VANISHING WILD LIFE ITS EXTERMINATION AND PRESERVATION BY WILLIAM T. HORNADAY, Sc.D. Page 19. “The Whooping Crane. —This splendid bird will almost certainly be the next North American species to be totally exterminated. It is the only new world rival of the numerous large and showy cranes of the old world; for the sandhill crane is not in the same class as the white, black and blue giants of Asia. We will part from our stately Grus americanus with profound sorrow, for on this continent we ne’er shall see his like again. The well-nigh total disappearance of this species has been brought close home to us by the fact that there are less than half a dozen individuals alive in captivity, while in a wild state the bird is so rare as to be quite unobtainable. For example, for nearly five years an English [Page 19] gentlemen has been offering $1,000 for a pair, and the most enterprising bird collector in America has been quite unable to fill the order. So far as our information extends, the last living specimen captured was taken six or seven years ago. The last wild birds seen and reported were observed by Ernest Thompson Seton, who saw five below Fort McMurray, Saskatchewan, October 16th, 1907, and by John F. Ferry, who saw



one at Big Quill Lake, Saskatchewan, in June, 1909. The range of this species once covered the eastern two-thirds of the continent of North America. It extended from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains, and from Great Bear Lake to Florida and Texas. Eastward of the Mississippi it has for twenty years been totally extinct, and the last specimens taken alive were found in Kansas and Nebraska. Photo was taken at “WHOOPING CRANES IN THE ZOOLOGICAL PARK ”
Hope:    Two articles written by John O’Reilly in 1954 and 1955 issues of “Sports Illustrated” describe the extraordinary efforts of individuals, conservation organizations and government agencies to protect and manage the endangered whooping cranes. These two articles are posted below:
The surviving remnant of the great race of whooping cranes, hardly more than two dozen birds, will be “escorted” this fall from Canada to Texas. That is, they will be escorted insofar as it is possible for human beings to escort wild creatures which fly high and come to rest in lonely places. But, elusive though they may be, these huge white birds with the black wingtips will be followed on their route by thousands of well-wishers.

Here Comes The Cranes, September 20, 1954
by John O”Reilly
The Survivors of America’s tallest birds will be “escorted” south

In advance of their coming a campaign is being conducted to alert the human population along the migration route of the cranes. As was the case last fall, radio stations will broadcast appeals to report the birds but not molest them. Their trip will be announced by newspapers. Sportsmen’s clubs and civic organizations have helped spread the word. Thousands of post cards bearing the facts and a picture of a whooper have been mailed to persons living along the flight lane.
All this is part of the international effort to help America’s tallest bird in its struggle for existence.  

When the birds migrated last spring there were 26 whooping cranes left—in the entire population of the species. Grus americana doesn’t occur in other parts of the world and they have been studied so thoroughly that the chance of even a single bird being discovered outside this group is highly improbable.

Two of the cranes, found crippled by gunshot, are now captives in a New Orleans zoo. The rest winter on the wide marshes and prairies of the 47,000-acre Arkansas Federal Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast, 40 miles from Corpus Christi. There they live singly and in family groups, each family occupying a territory of some 500 acres from which other cranes are driven. Without the use of a blind it is difficult to get within half a mile of them. On a trip to the refuge I jeeped and stalked the prairies for days before I got a close view of the cranes. When a pair finally flew right over me I was told that I was luckier than most.

The exact location of the nesting grounds of the remaining whoopers has not been found. This summer a scientist hovering in a helicopter over the wild country south of Canada’s Great Slave Lake looked down and spotted four whooping cranes, three adults and a young one. His find was the best evidence so far of the general location of their breeding grounds.

The whooping crane once inhabited the central part of the continent from the Arctic Coast to central Mexico. It demanded plenty of space in which to live and rear its young, and when it stood at full height to utter its challenging buglelike call, it was almost six feet tall. But as the prairies were tamed and planted, the whooping cranes dwindled steadily.

Now the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society are partners in a project designed to save the whooping crane from extinction. Numerous state agencies and private groups are cooperating. One of the prime workers on the project is Robert P. Allen, research ornithologist of the National Audubon Society. Allen devoted three years to an intensive study of the cranes, hoping to find a way to halt their decline.

During that time he lived with the birds on the lonely Texas marshes in winter. In early spring he took off by plane in advance of their migration and intercepted them along the Platte River in Nebraska. He traced their migration route through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and into Saskatchewan where they disappeared into Canada’s north country. He flew thousands of miles in the far north in a vain search for their nesting grounds.

People often ask how on earth the cranes know enough to go right to the refuge to spend the winter. The answer is that the presence of the whooping cranes there is historic and was one of the main reasons why the refuge was established in 1937.

As a result of Allen’s recommendations, numerous steps have been taken to aid the cranes. One of the main objectives has been to find the nesting grounds and learn whether there are any factors there which are limiting the increase. Canada has announced that when the nesting area is found it will be declared an inviolate sanctuary. Plans are now being made for a systematic search of the area next summer.

Each fall the refuge men are waiting eagerly as the cranes come back in little groups. By early December they are all in and the refuge men make an exact count by flying over them in small planes. In recent years the flock has returned with an average of four young birds. But usually a few of the parents are lost, some from being shot, and others from unknown causes. Sometimes the population fluctuates perilously. The gain or loss of a single bird is vital to the survival of the race.

Last year there was a gain. Twenty-one whoopers took off for the North in the spring and in the fall all 21 returned, bringing three gawky offspring with them. This fall more eyes than ever will be on the alert in the country’s most unusual bird-watching program.

Whoop for Cranes  –   November 21, 1955                                                                                                                                                  by John O’Reilly

 Scientists who searched arduously and long for the nests of the all-but-extinct whooping crane rejoiced last week: its young are on the increase.  Among birds, the all-but-extinct whooping crane is most symbolic of the mighty sweep of wilderness that once was America. Tall, wary and aloof, the whooping crane demands plenty of living space. It proclaims its utter freedom with a far-reaching, buglelike call. It regards the intrusions of man with an imperious look in its cold, yellow eyes. Although but a remnant of a once-great race, Grus americana seems imbued with a special urge to survive.  

These are some of the reasons why the news of the return of 20 adult whooping cranes with a bonanza of eight young has just been greeted with such national exuberance. Last spring 21 whoopers left their wintering area on the Texas coast for their breeding grounds in northern Canada. By last Monday all except one adult were back in Texas. This bird may be lost or it still may be on the way. Sometimes the last migrants don’t get back until the first week in December.

The appearance of eight young birds this year is cause for rejoicing among followers of the cranes both in the United States and Canada. The eight youngsters represent the largest crop since wildlife experts first started counting the remaining cranes 17 years ago. The largest previous number was seven young in 1939.

Anxiety over the migrating whoopers mounted steadily during the past two months as they made their 2,400-mile trip. Julian Howard, manager of the 47,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas, has been swamped with demands for information on the returning whooper families. Never has the welfare of a migrating band of birds been of such concern to so many.
During the summer, workers on Project Whooping Crane, the international effort to keep the big birds flying, discovered the long-sought nesting ground of the last of the whoopers. As a result, it was known that the cranes had hatched at least six young. 

Last summer, just as interest in the whoopers was reaching its height, the United States Air Force announced plans for establishing a photoflash bombing range within a mile of part of the birds’ wintering grounds. The National Audubon Society and local Audubon societies all over the country sent protests. More protests came from the National Parks Association, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Nature Association and individuals who had helped in the struggle to save the cranes. Then the Canadian government made a verbal inquiry to the State Department. Last month the Air Force announced that its proposal to establish the bombing range had been withdrawn.

Old records show that whooping cranes once nested on the great prairies of the West and ranged over most of the country. Gradually they gave way before the plow and the gun, disappearing as their nesting grounds were settled and turned into wheat lands.

As long ago as 1923 some wildlife writers had declared the whooping crane extinct. The “last” nest had been found in Saskatchewan in 1922, and the young bird was taken from it, stuffed and placed in a museum. The existence of the wintering group on the Texas coast was known only to a few and it was their presence that led to the establishment, at that spot, of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The big fight to save the whoopers started when Project Whooping Crane was set up 10 years ago.

The closest human associate of the whoopers since then has been Robert P. Allen, a square-built, black-haired Pennsylvanian. As research ornithologist of the National Audubon Society and leader in Project Whooping Crane, he had studied the cranes on their wintering grounds but his attempts to find their nesting sites in the far north had been fruitless. But, as he and others continued their work, public interest increased steadily.

The cause of the whooping crane became of such widespread interest that thousands of persons were on the lookout for them. Then in June 1954 some whoopers were spotted from a plane in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, a wilderness area of 17,300 square miles, most of which is never visited by anybody, tourists or otherwise.

This knowledge led the international partners in Project Whooping Crane—the Canadian Wildlife Service, the’ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society—to launch an all-out effort to find the nests. Their aim was to discover whether anything or anybody was molesting the birds as they reared their young.

Allen was ready to start north to lead the expedition when William A. Fuller, biologist of the Canadian Wildlife Service, became the first man to see a wild whooper’s nest since that “last” nest was reported 33 years ago. Fuller was flying in the wild country along the Sass River on May 18 with Edward Wellien and Wesley Newcomb of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he spotted a pair of whoopers and a nest. On the same flight two more nests were seen.

This news spurred the expedition to action. Next to the actual finding of the nests the most important thing was to reach the area on the ground; to learn what, if any, were the dangers to the cranes; to study their nesting habitat and collect samples of their food. Allen hurried north and was met at Fort Smith, an outpost on the Slave River, by Raymond Stewart of the Canadian Wildlife Service and Robert E. Stewart, biologist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fort Smith is the jumping-off place for prospectors in the uranium rush. Men come and go and low conversations about uranium strikes are carried on in corners. So, as the three outfitted for their expedition, they were greeted with knowing smiles and sly smirks when they said they were heading into the bush to look for birds.

Wood Buffalo whooping crane habitat, Canada.


It was chilly on the morning of May 23 when the expedition set out down the mighty Slave River, which winds northwest to Great Slave Lake. At a great bend in the river, 44 miles from Fort Smith, they unloaded their supplies, cooked a meal and headed into the spruce forest. The Indian packers, two of them carrying the canoe, were strung out behind them. Nine hours later the three scientists said good by to the Indians and made their first camp on the shore of Long Slough.

As they moved down the slough the next morning in their overloaded canoe, the country around them was feeling the first touch of spring. Cattails were just beginning to show green. Canvasbacks, goldeneyes, buffleheads and other waterfowl were all about them. To the west they caught occasional glimpses of buffalo herds, with a spring crop of reddish-brown calves. They were still in high spirits when they made another portage, pitching their second camp on the banks of the Little Buffalo River. They moved up the Little Buffalo, still feeling fine. Turning into the Sass River, they rounded a bend to encounter their first trouble. It was a log jam, not of lumber logs but of trees and snags. They soon realized that the Sass was just one log jam after another, a fact that had not been apparent during their aerial survey.

They were sitting on the bank of the river, returning the stares of solemn buffalo and wondering what to do next, when they learned from their radio that they were believed lost and had become the objects of a search. The Northwest Mounted Police and park officials had been alerted. Unable to send out messages on their radio, they decided to strike for Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake, where word of their safety could be sent out. After a turbulent trip down the Little Buffalo, they persuaded a Chipewyan Indian to carry a message across the frozen expanse of Great Slave Lake to Fort Resolution. Three days later Pat Carey, veteran bush pilot, dropped into the river mouth in his plane and took them back to Fort Smith. They were back where they had started.

Disappointment over their failure was forgotten on learning they could get the services of a helicopter which had been working north of Great Slave Lake. The helicopter transported them and their gear but, blown off course by a strong cross wind, the pilot became confused and dropped them 20 miles from where they thought they were landing. They didn’t realize this dismal fact until they had fought their way on foot for three days through swamps and sloughs.

Now they were really lost, and to make matters worse mosquitoes had emerged in millions, augmented by black flies, deer flies and a superdreadnaught called the bulldog fly. Their only relief from the clouds of insects came at night when they shut up their tent, killed the mosquitoes that were waiting inside and went to sleep.

At last, admitting they were licked, they put their canoe in the nearest river and started downstream. It turned out to be the Sass, the river of log jams. This time they cut their way through or portaged around 42 log jams, using the ax as much as the paddle. Reaching the Little Buffalo River, they went downstream and made the long portage back to the Slave River where a boat took them once more back to Fort Smith.

All told, they had been in the mosquito-infested woods for a month and hadn’t reached the home of the cranes. They had called the whole thing a failure and were ready to pull out when they learned another helicopter was available. Bob Stewart went back to Washington but Ray Stewart and Bob Allen prepared their gear for a third assault of the vast swamps.

This helicopter dropped them in the right spot and, as before, they started scouring the area on foot. Several days later Allen and Stewart emerged from a thicket to see a flash of white ahead of them. Slipping up, they came upon an adult whooping crane, drawn up to its full height of five and a half feet, silent and alert. Nearby was another. The two birds separated, finally moving out of sight. It was not until later that they learned this pair was hiding two offspring from them.

The goal had been reached. For 10 days the scientists studied the nesting habitat of the cranes. They collected specimens of frogs, fish, snails and other animal life which form the summer diet of the cranes. They also collected plant samples and made notes on everything that might have a bearing on the life of the whoopers.

Their work done, the helicopter ferried them out to the Slave River and they came up the river through the arctic twilight to Fort Smith in an outboard-driven skiff. Several days later I joined Bob Allen and Bill Fuller on a final aerial survey of the nesting area. As we moved over this watery world the scientists spotted two big, white birds. George Dannemann, our pilot, circled down to where we could tell they were whooping cranes. As the plane banked in a tight circle, we all saw not just the one, but two rusty-brown youngsters, two feet tall and standing between their white parents.

The scientists could restrain themselves no longer but began letting out whoops that would have done credit to the birds themselves. “Two young,” shouted Allen, and we all yelled in joy at just about the rarest sight that the bird world can offer in North America.
We saw two more fledglings on that flight and the scientists were jubilant. They and the thousands of others in the United States and Canada who are pulling for the whoopers know the cranes can never be brought back to their former numbers. But they also know that if Grus americana should disappear altogether it would mean the loss of something truly representative of the North American continent, for whooping cranes are nowhere else to be found.———End of O’Reilly article.

Voices from the Past:  A 1954 recording of whooping cranes at Aransas. Pam Bates explains, “The Macaulay Library has 12 different whooping crane recordings but this one was my favorite because it talks about 1954 being the first year that they had 3 young whoopers that migrated with their parents from Canada. The whooping Crane population at Aransas was 24 that winter.”

Pam Bates advises, “The first speaker is Arthur Allen, a renowned ornithologist and who the Arthur A Allen Award is named after. Julian Howard, the second person to speak and mentions the annual count for 24 was the manager of Aransas at the time. Click on the link and follow:
ML: ML Audio 2739: Whooping Crane   macaulaylibrary.org     Finally, to hear the interesting Whooping Crane calls click on:    

ML: ML Audio 2739: Whooping Crane

Whooping bugeling

Unison (334kb wave)

Present:    John O’Reilly was correct when he wrote in 1955 that “They and the thousands of others in the United States and Canada who are pulling for the whoopers know the cranes can never be brought back to their former numbers. But they also know that if Grus americana   should disappear altogether it would mean the loss of something truly representative of the North American continent, for whooping cranes are nowhere else to be found. ”

 Thank goodness that some of our government agencies and private conservation organizations continued to work to restore the whooping crane flock. The Whooping Crane Conservation Association has focused on this objective for over half a century. Very slowly during the past 57 years the flock has increased to approximately 300 in 2012. That’s progress by any measure.