Journey of the Whooping Crane
- Library Hall
At 5 feet tall, and with a wingspan of over 7 feet, the whooping crane has the distinction of being North America’s tallest bird and sadly, also one of its rarest. Habitat loss and hunting pressure from European settlers reduced the population to just fifteen birds by the 1940s. Since then, in an intense effort to protect and restore the species, a broad coalition of NGO’s, private interests and government agencies has worked collectively and tirelessly to nurture the remaining wild flock to its current population of about 600 birds. While the recovery is remarkable, the population is still considered extremely vulnerable and some radical and astonishing techniques have been employed in an attempt to ensure the survival of the species. Journey of the Whooping Crane introduces us to some of the remarkable individuals who have dedicated their lives to these animals, and gives viewers an intimate look at a bird that is truly exceptional.
We travel to Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada, the rarely seen sole breeding ground of the last wild flock. We follow the cranes on their phenomenal 2,500-mile migration south to their fragile wintering area in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the gulf coast of Texas.
We meet important scientists like Dr. George Archibald, whose lifelong dedication to all species of cranes led him to invent several novel techniques that are now commonplace to help successfully breed more of the birds, and to help them migrate. In 1982, Archibald famously coaxed a captive Whooping Crane named “Tex” to lay eggs by forming a “pair bond” with her. He slept in her cage for months and mimicked crane courtship dances, leaping and flapping his arms like wings. It worked, a chick named “Gee Whiz” hatched, and valuable genetic diversity was added to a desperate flock.
To accelerate breeding of Whooping Cranes, eggs are taken from captive birds and hatched in a laboratory. Newborn cranes “imprint” on the first thing they see upon hatching, often regarding the humans who rear them as their equivalent. To avoid a human imprint, scientists developed a technique known as “isolation rearing” where caretakers wear special costumes and use hand puppets to raise “wild” crane chicks. Crane chicks grow to their full height in just ninety days and are then released into the wild.
One strategy employed to protect the species as a whole has been to establish a second flock of wild birds with different migration and breeding sites than the indigenous flock. The idea is to create a geographically separate flock of birds to hedge against environmental catastrophes such as hurricanes or diseases. In 2001, scientists established a second flock in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Newly released Whooping Cranes were then amazingly taught to migrate to a wintering ground in central Florida by following a costumed pilot in an ultra-light plane. The operation is working.
Journey of the Whooping Crane examines all of these remarkable stories and more.
About the Yampa Valley Crane Festival
The Greater Sandhill Crane is an iconic species of the Yampa Valley. Returning in the spring, cranes nest and raise their young in wetland areas throughout the valley. In late summer and early fall, hundreds of cranes from the Rocky Mountain flock join the local birds to rest and feed before continuing their journey south. The festival includes daily crane viewings, expert speakers, films, art exhibits, workshops, family activities and more. All community activities and events are free unless otherwise indicated in the program, and Bud Werner Memorial Library is festival headquarters and the venue for many of these talks, films and events.
Learn more about the Yampa Valley Crane Festival at www.coloradocranes.org.