The Whooping Crane was, and is, one of the most endangered birds in North America. Though probably never abundant, the population reached a staggering low of about 15 birds in 1941 due to hunting and habitat loss/degradation. From these beleaguered survivors, strong protection and good management practices have increased the main wild population up to almost 300 today. A couple hundred more birds occur in re-introduced flocks in eastern North America and in captivity. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that this large, long-lived, slow reproducing species is still exceedingly rare (a sad trend for many crane species).
The one remaining wild flock breeds almost exclusively in Wood Buffalo National Park on the northeastern Alberta-southern Northwest Territories border. The breeding grounds are luckily remote and inaccessible, offering a safe breeding area. Pairs return in April and begin nesting soon after. Typically birds don’t begin nesting until they are around 4 years of age (they may live over 30 years in the wild), and only lay up to 2 eggs. Though 2 eggs are laid, typically only one survives to fledging. The incubation period lasts about a month, and chicks are able to fly well about 3 months later. With a 4-month nesting period, there typically isn’t time to lay another clutch if the first one fails. Atypical for most bird species, young migrate and remain with their parents for 10 to 11 months. And so, family by family, the whole population migrates south, staging for several weeks in Saskatchewan, before continuing on to the wintering area in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.
It is there, in Texas, that most birders catch up with the great white Grus. Indeed a Whooping Crane anywhere is a sight to behold, but there is something extra special about catching a glimpse of this species in Canada. It certainly adds a dimension of challenge to the hunt. If one does the math, there is roughly 1 Whooping Crane per 300 square kilometres within the Saskatchewan fall staging area. Considering that family groups migrate together, and birds are often clustered, the amount of land you need to cover in order to actually see one can be considerably greater. On the flipside, Whooping Cranes often remain in the same area for several weeks. Within the past few years, the area of Muskiki Lake east of Saskatoon has been just such an area. Flocks numbering in the twenties have started to accumulate at Muskiki, sizes not seen since historical times.
I’ll be making my own migration to Muskiki Lake soon, in hopes of finding these cranes; the tallest birds in North America with one of the smallest populations. Stay tuned!