• Although its numbers were perilously low 70 year ago, the whooping crane has bounced back

    Although its numbers were perilously low 70 year ago, the whooping crane has bounced back. (Photo: Klaus Nigge/National Geographic)

Grus americana
SARA status: Endangered
Weight: 6 to 7 kg
Wingspan: 2 m or more
Height: 1.5 m
Offspring: 2 eggs per year, usually 1 chick survives
Lifespan: 22 to 30 years

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic. Whooping Crane data credit: current and historical range data based on COSEWIC assessment and status report on the whooping crane (Grus Americana) in Canada. COSEWIC, 2010.

Talk about an endangered species story to whoop about. The whooping crane once nested throughout the central and western part of the continent, but as people settled the Prairies in the early 1900s, they drained the marshes — “whooper” habitat — for their crops. In 1942, just 15 of the only migratory population remained, though they continued to winter in Texas and breed in a thenunknown location. By 1950, the world’s only other whooping crane, from a non-migratory Louisiana population, was taken into captivity.

Fortunately the tough times were about to change. Wood Buffalo National Park, the remaining flock’s breeding area, was founded in 1922, and their wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast of Texas were protected in 1937. Since 1994, whooping cranes have been protected in Canada under the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

Conservationists have boosted the whooping crane’s numbers by breeding the endangered species in captivity, but whoopers reared by humans often lack the skills necessary to survive in the wild. That’s where some conservationists have been creative. Canadian-born ornithologist George Archibald became a minor celebrity when he performed the whooping crane courtship dance to form a pair-bond with one human-imprinted bird. And Operation Migration, based in Ontario, uses ultralight aircraft to guide the cranes to new wintering grounds.

With the world’s whooping crane population now at 498 birds, those efforts have clearly paid off. Though the species remains endangered, and the concentration of whooping cranes makes them susceptible to environmental and natural disasters, many conservationists consider the whooping crane the quintessential recovery story.

Learn more about the whooping crane:
Return to the wild

Q & A with a crane dancer

George Archibald does a mating dance with Gee Whiz, a whooping crane. (Photo courtesy of George Archibald)

George Archibald doesn’t just study cranes - he dances with them.

Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation has made it his life-long mission to fight for the survival of worldwide crane populations. So naturally, when a human-imprinted whooping crane, Tex, needed a dancing partner for her mating dance, Archibald got grooving. With less than 60 whoopers left in the 1970s, Archibald and Tex – and their dancing – helped bring the North American whooping crane population back from the brink.

As the first ever recipient of the 2013 Dan W. Lufkin Prize for environmental leadership, Nova Scotia born Archibald has been recognized for his unwavering commitment to crane conservation.

Canadian Geographic What first inspired your interest in cranes?

George Archibald When I was a kid in Nova Scotia I was in a one-room schoolhouse and every Friday at 10 a.m. we watched a CBC program called Science of the Air. One day there was a dramatization showing a pair of cranes at their nesting ground. When a plane flies over the crane’s nesting grounds one crane yells, ‘They’ve discovered us! They’ll steal our eggs, shoot us and put us in a museum drawer.” For some reason the crane’s words stuck with me as a child.

CG When you started the International Crane Foundation in 1973 with fellow Cornell graduate, Ron Sauey, what was the most difficult challenge you faced?

GA Well, we had no money. We operated from hand to mouth. Thankfully we were young and had lots of energy.

CG What was it like dancing with Tex in 1976?

GA It was boring being out in the middle of a field with a bird from dawn until dusk. I would go out there, run around with her and jump and throw things in the air four times a day. Then I would go back to my work and she would go back to preening. My mind was somewhere else but my body was there with her.

CG Did you ever doubt Tex’s ability to produce a viable egg?

GA I’m an optimist and I never thought about failure. I never knew for sure if it was going to be successful, but I never had a doubt in my mind that it wasn’t worth doing. In the end, it took us six years before we got a chick, which we named Gee Whiz.