Friday, January 30, 2009

The road not taken.....musings on whooping cranes

Whooping Crane (photo courtesy of

Whooping cranes have taken up residence in South Carolina, at least for part of the year. That's a big deal. They're one of North America's rarest birds and haven't been in the Carolinas in probably a hundred years.

I almost got involved with Whooping Cranes a long time ago, and I wish I had. When I finished college, I wrote off to somebody (I forgot his name, Ray? Roy?) who was managing a Whooping Crane recovery project in another state. He and his cohorts were using Sandhill Cranes to raise Whooping Crane eggs. The researchers had found that if they removed eggs from Whooper nests and slipped the eggs into the nests of Sandhill Crane foster parents, the Whoopers would simply lay replacement eggs. Thereby doubling the production of Whooper chicks per year at this recovery facility. The researchers used gloves fashioned to look like crane heads when they tended the babies, so the cranes wouldn't lose their fear of humans.

I wanted to work for this project helping an endangered species. But as fate would have it, Ray or Roy or whoever had no money to hire anyone else, was making use of volunteer labor, and I decided to do something else. That's the proverbial road I did not take, as Robert Frost wrote of in his famous poem The Road Not Taken. That decision was probably a big mistake on my part, given the situation I find myself in at present.

But I digress. To cut to the chase....I've always been interested in Whooping Cranes. They're making a significant comeback, and the story is pretty intriguing.

Way before people fouled up almost everything outdoors, the range of Whooping Cranes extended from the Arctic coast into Mexico, and from Utah to NJ. Their range included wintering grounds in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Then, because of hunting and habitat destruction, their numbers dropped to only 16 birds in 1941, all in one little flock that nested in Canada and overwintered in Texas. But by the 1970's and 80's, recovery efforts were well underway. Those efforts included raising Whooping Cranes in captivity as I mentioned above. Sandhill Cranes played a big part, standing in as surrogate parents and even surrogate flocks. In 1998, scientist Kent Clegg figured a way to teach some captive-raised Whooping Cranes how to migrate from Idaho to New Mexico. He trained them to follow an ultralight plane, and when they got to New Mexico, he got them to mingle with a robust Sandhill Crane flock, so they wouldn't be alone and would learn flocking behaviors.

Due to these and other recovery efforts, the western flock of Whooping Cranes has now expanded to about 270 birds, according the USFW Service. A big increase!

Recent events in the East have caught my attention, and motivated me to write this post. In 2001, the USFW Service began trying to reintroduce Whooping Cranes to the eastern part of the country, which has had no birds at all for a century or more. The Whoopers have been taught with another ultralight plane to fly from breeding grounds in Wisconsin to overwintering grounds in Florida, and back. It's amazing that the plane gimmick works - just like in the fictitious movie, Fly Away Home (about geese following an ultralight plane). But cranes are programmed genetically to follow something flying (normally their parents) to learn the ancestral migratory route. Somehow a slow quiet small plane will suffice.

As I mentioned, Whooping Cranes used to overwinter in the Carolinas as well as Florida. But the newly expanded population has never been trained to come here. early 2004, one group flying up from Florida, en route to Wisconsin, hit some strong winds that blew them east and they settled down near New Bern, on the coastal plain of NC. My home state. Two males of the original seven that put down here in 2004, along with their mates, continue to return to the ACE basin in South Carolina. The individuals are known as 10-03, I, and WI-06. Don't know the fourth one. I, for one, am delighted to have them here.

The total Eastern migratory population is only 73 Whooping Cranes, including the ones that go to Florida. That's a lot, especially when you consider we now have 343 in the whole country. Compared to the 16 we once had.

The Carolina coast is wild in places. I went with a USFW biologist once to see some red wolves, who roam freely on the NC coast, in the Alligator River Nature Preserve. Turned out the only wolves we found were some that were in a pen awaiting inoculations from the USFW staff. But over 100 now run free throughout the preserve, so I guess cranes can live here too.

Frost begins his poem with "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood". Although I have regrets about the road I didn't take, as an aspiring biologist years ago, I'm thrilled that a few cranes turned left one year, and now seem to prefer South Carolina to Florida. Maybe, if we're lucky, they'll thrive here.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

By Sally Kneidel, PhD

Jack Horan. Whooping Cranes: four of the rare birds, once almost extinct, have made a home on the Carolina coast. Charlotte Observer, January 25, 2009.

Robert Frost. "The Road Not Taken".

For more info:

Keywords:: Whooping Cranes endangered species birds recovery plan


Anonymous said...


Great post! I live in Florida, and though I've never seen a whooping crane up close, I know that they're on the brink of extinction. From my home, I regularly see sandhill cranes, hawks, songbirds, and wading birds--egrets, herons, etc.. Florida is a birder's paradise, especially in the Everglades and other natural preserves.

Kelly Jad'on

Anonymous said...

I am fortunate enough to have a pair of whoopers literally in my back yard. I would be happy to share photos of them. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sally! LOVED your post. I've just been informed of the Whoopers that have taken up residence in South Carolina. I'm a professional photographer based in Charleston and would LOVE to photograph them. Do you have any contacts I can reach or know more about where exactly they are located? I would LOVE to photograph them...

Chris said...

Hi Sally!

I'm a professional photographer base in Charleston SC. I read your post with great interest. Do you know anyone I could contact or how I could locate the Whoopers in South Carolina? I would LOVE to photograph them before they take wing for their trip back north...

Sally Kneidel, PhD said...

Chris and Cami,
I'm afraid I don't know where they are in South Carolina. My husband said he thinks they might be keeping it a secret to protect the birds.

Sorry I can't be more helpful.

Emily Smith said...

I live in Charleston, SC, and I just saw a whooping crane today. I didn't know they were here until one flew over my head! I decided to research it and, here was your page. Wow!