Whooper History – from Gloom to Dream to Restoration

Interesting history briefs compiled by Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Recorded history of whooping cranes has ranged from beliefs that the birds would become extinct to efforts to restore the flock. Friends of the Wild Whoopers researched the literature and came across some interesting material. Some of our findings are posted here for your interest:

Gloom:   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 ”

Dream:    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  –   Nov.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

Whooping crane bugling

Click on the following to hear a whooping crane unison call:        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. Very slowly during the past 60 years the flock has increased to approximately 300 in 2014. That’s progress by any measure.


Reward offered after whooping cranes shot in Jeff Davis Parrish, Louisiana

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) Enforcement Division agents are investigating after two whooping cranes that were found shot in Jefferson Davis Parish this morning, Feb. 7.

The whooping cranes were found and recovered near the corner of Compton Road and Radio Tower Road just north of Roanoke about five miles north of Interstate 10. Agents found a shot and killed female whooping crane and a shot and injured male whooping crane.

LDWF personnel were able to retrieve the injured male crane and will transport it to LSU for examination. It appears at this time to have an injured wing suffered from the shot. Agents believe that the birds were shot with bird shot sometime yesterday, Feb. 6.

“Anytime we lose one of these cranes it sets us back in our efforts to restore the whooping crane population back to its historic levels in Louisiana,” said LDWF Secretary Robert Barham. “These were once native birds to Louisiana and the department would like to see these cranes thrive again in the future with a sustainable population.”

LDWF’s Operation Game Thief program is offering up to a $1,000 reward for any information about this illegal shooting that leads to an arrest. To report any information regarding this whooping crane shooting, please call 1-800-442-2511.



Keystone Pipeline Could Push Endangered Whooping Crane Into Extinction

February 3, 2014
Whooper - Green title image                                                                                       

Leda Huta , Executive Director, Endangered Species Coalition


Read more:  Keystone Pipeline Keystone XL Pipeline Endangered Species Endangered Species ActWhooping-Cranes-Population Green News

If you were to choose a route through which to move toxic, highly corrosive, sludgy crude oil, would you place it on the same narrow corridor used by one of the world’s most endangered birds? The Canadian energy company TransCanada did and the Obama administration is on the verge of approving that absurd proposal.

Whooper Migration Pathway map. USFWS
Whooper Migration Pathway map. USFWS.

If approved by the administration, the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline will move a half million+ barrels daily of Canadian crude 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to the Texas coast  as soon as 2013. TransCanada would like the world to believe that their pipeline is relatively safe, claiming just one predicted spill in the first 7 years. Yet, TransCanada’s existing Keystone Pipeline has experienced 12 spills — in just 12 months of operation.

Despite assurances by pipeline operators, spills continue. The July spill of a much smaller pipeline under the Yellowstone River in Montana released 1,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone. The Keystone XL would be 3 times as large, carrying 600,000 of oil per day. There have been five major pipeline spills in the United States in the last 24 months. Adding nearly 2,000 miles of high-pressure pipeline carrying one of the most corrosive and dirty fuels known to man is a disaster in the making.

That doesn’t sound safe, particularly not for the one of the most highly endangered birds in the world — the Whooping crane. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) calls the Whooping crane one of the most famous symbols of America’s dedication to saving its wild national heritage. Unfortunately for the crane, however, it uses the same 1,700-mile route as the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

Whooper Keystonee Oil map.
Whooper Keystonee Oil map. – From the Department of State

Whooping cranes follow the proposed path of the pipeline annually each spring, as they migrate from Texas to their breeding grounds in Canada. Along the way, they depend on the rivers, marshes, wetlands and streams for stopover and feeding habitat. Since the pipeline’s proposed route crosses many of these habitats — including the Platte River in Nebraska, one of the most important feeding and resting locations — miles of these critical stopping points would be at risk of being fouled with sludgy, toxic tar-sands oil every day of the year.

Scientists are deeply concerned about the potential harm to Whooping Cranes. The Society for Conservation Biology — the world’s largest international conservation science society — has recently released a press release sounding the alarm about the cranes. For instance, arecent report found that a major spill on the Platte River could result in 5.9 million gallons of toxic, corrosive tar-sands oil being dumped into the Platte.

A worst-case scenario per their research would result in nearly 8 million gallons of oil being spilled. A catastrophe of this magnitude would almost certainly decimate wildlife and potentially all that remains of this population of whooping cranes — just 74 breeding pairs.
Deepwater Horizon mercilessly demonstrated the near impossible task of cleaning oil from a marsh or wetland. And this oil — tar-sands oil — is much more corrosive, toxic and difficult to clean up. Once coated with sticky oil, the birds would be unable to insulate and regulate their temperatures and could slowly die from hypothermia or acute toxicity. Imagine the brown pelicans in the Gulf but with much thicker oil (and much more endangered birds).

In addition to the grave risk of catastrophic spill, whooping cranes would be put at still further risk by the installation of aerial power lines that would be constructed to power pumping stations on the proposed pipeline route. Collisions with power lines are already the largest known cause of death for migrating Whooping cranes. This proposal would result in hundreds more miles of aerial lines throughout the birds’ migrating path, compounding the likelihood of disaster. These aerial lines won’t be built without the pipeline and the pipeline won’t be built without them.

This pipeline simply cannot be built without putting the whooping crane and as many as 10 other endangered species at great and unnecessary peril. Despite that, the State department recently published its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) asserting that there would be no significant impacts along the proposed corridor. Alarmingly, the State Department declined to include any analysis from the soon to be completed USFWS biological opinion regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline. In doing so, the State Department has completely ignored the impacts of the proposed pipeline on the highly endangered Whooping crane and in so doing, ignored the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

The Obama administration could announce its decision whether to block this remarkably flawed proposal at any time. The White House needs to hear from you. Please go to Tell President Obama to Reject the Keystone XL! to tell the President to block the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Photo Credits: 
Migration Pathway — From the US Fish & Wildlife Service;   Proposed Keystone Expansion Route — From the U.S. Department of State

Follow Leda Huta on Twitter: www.twitter.com/savespecies


Advocate Editorial Board opinion: One survey of whoopers isn’t look at complete picture


  • Originally published January 7, 2014 at 6:30 p.m., updated January 7, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

The whooping cranes have been in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge since November. The endangered birds will spend the winter and early spring months here before flying back to Canada in April.

The Aransas flock is the last remaining natural migratory flock, and we are proud to know it has a safe refuge in our area. The cranes are part of an important ecosystem balance that both private citizens and government agencies have worked hard to maintain. But some elements of those preservation efforts are still adjusting.

According to a previous article, one group, the International Crane Foundation, says the method used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to survey the population of cranes is providing an incomplete set of data. The previous method employed was a census conducted by Tom Stehn, retired whooping crane coordinator for the wildlife service, that attempted to count each individual crane throughout the season using weekly flights over the refuge. Now, the survey method looks at a portion of the population over a one-month period and uses a mathematical equation to estimate how many cranes there are this year.

In order to fill in the blanks, the foundation is conducting its own count along 10 miles of shoreline up the Intracoastal Waterway on the east side of Blackjack Peninsula – about 20 percent of the cranes’ habitat – for the third year. The count is meant to examine the status of a subset of the population.

We are glad to see both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a private nonprofit are collecting information on this endangered species. Whooping cranes rely on a delicate balance that includes freshwater flow, water salinity, food availability and more. The survey method, while not as specific as a census, offers a general spectrum of the number of cranes in the refuge, but the limited time used to count the cranes seems counterintuitive. The crane population can fluctuate as the season progresses. Birds do not die during a specific time period. It would be better to find a way to offer updated surveys throughout the season to keep tabs on the population rather than taking a count at the beginning of the season and hoping there are no significant changes.

We applaud everyone who plays a part in protecting this important, valuable species. But because the species is so important to the Aransas refuge ecosystem, we encourage the government to develop a more extensive counting system that will provide a more complete picture of how the population changes throughout the season. The more data that is available, the better we can protect these endangered birds.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.