It’s March, and there’s a lot of whooping and dancing going on along the Gulf Coast in Texas.

No, it’s not spring break for college students, although there is love in the air. Instead, the world’s last remaining wild population of whooping cranes is strutting around in a sambalike manner. They are announcing that it’s time to begin their 2,500-mile return journey north to their nesting grounds in Canada.

Whooping Crane Facts

Population Count: From a low of 15 in 1941, the whooping crane population now numbers near 600. Of these, nearly 300 are part of the original wild flock that migrates between Canada and the Gulf Coast of Texas. Another 110 are part of the Eastern Migratory Population that is being reintroduced into the wild. Still another 140 birds are in captive breeding centers — the source of the chicks being reintroduced. There’s also a population that was begun four years ago of 35 nonmigratory birds in the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area (WLWCA) in Louisiana.

Number of Ultralight Flights: 13 since 2001

Ultralight Flock Size: Six to 24 chicks per year

Survival Rates: More than 90 percent of the migrating chicks survive the 1,200-mile journey. Ten have been shot by vandals since the program began.

Future Flights: The ultralight flights will continue for at least another five years.

The forces that drive this annual journey — which is part instinct, part learned — remain a mystery. Scientists know that the birds fly south in the fall for food and, when it is time to nest, they are compelled to return to the same place where they were fledged. What triggers the biannual trek and how the birds master their migration map are less clear. But scientists are beginning to unravel the mystery, thanks to a reintroduced flock of whooping cranes in the Eastern U.S. that are descendants of the wild flock — and possibly the birds’ best chance for survival.

Born To Be Wild
Re-creating an animal’s culture, which is what scientists do when they reintroduce a social species like the crane, is a complicated parsing of nature and nurture. What behaviors are instinctive versus learned? And to what degree? The challenge is made more daunting when the population is so small as to be nearly extinct, as are the critically endangered whooping cranes. Once reaching numbers near 10,000, the whooping crane population plunged to 1,400 in the 1800s due to habitat loss and overhunting. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only a single flock of 15 birds remained in 1941. Over the next two decades, there were fewer than 35 birds that migrated between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A single disaster could have wiped out the entire species.

During the 1960s, the plight of this majestic bird — which, at 5 feet tall (and with a wingspan of 8 feet) is North America’s tallest — grabbed public attention and inspired biologists to make heroic efforts to save it. In 1967, biologists at the United States Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., removed a few eggs from the nests of wild whoopers to rear in captivity, so they could study and breed them without endangering the fragile and human-wary wild birds. They hoped to eventually reintroduce a second flock elsewhere in the wild.

One of the first discoveries the researchers made is that young chicks “imprint” upon whatever animal they see first, and if it’s not one of their own species, they will fail to identify with other whoopers. This important lesson was learned after eggs of captive whoopers were placed in nests of wild sandhill cranes, which were to act as surrogate parents. Once the chicks matured, though, they were shunned as mates by the other whooping cranes. “They thought they were sandhill cranes,” explains Sarah Converse, a research ecologist at Patuxent. Since most birds are genetically programmed when it comes to sexual behavior, this information gave scientists valuable insight about the species. “It taught us a critical lesson in how important learning is in whooping cranes,” Converse says.