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The Whooping Crane, a symbol of national and international efforts to recover endangered species, has returned from the brink of extinction, increasing from 15 or 16 individuals wintering in Texas in 1941 to 257 individuals in captivity and the wild in April 1995. Although it remains one of the rarest birds in North America, this crane appears to have a reasonably secure future in the wild, owing to intense management efforts. Because of the concern this species has generated, it is arguably one of the best-studied birds in North America, although much remains to be learned about how to reestablish viable migratory populations. Within the United States, the Whooping Crane is listed as Endangered; recovery has been accomplished cooperatively by Canada and the United States, assisted by provincial and state agencies, nongovernment groups, and the private sector.
The common name of the Whooping Crane is probably derived from its Guard Call or Unison Call vocalizations. In the 1800s, this species was widespread but apparently never common in the tall- and mixed-grass prairie marshes of the north-central United States and southern Canada. It remains ecologically dependent on such inland freshwater wetlands and, in winter, on coastal brackish wetlands. Today (1990s) the only self-sustaining wild population of this crane nests in Wood Buffalo National Park in Northwest Territories, Canada, and adjacent areas of northeastern Alberta and winters on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Small populations have been reintroduced to southeastern Idaho/western Wyoming and to central Florida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a captive flock at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin; the National Biological Service maintains a flock at the Patuxent Environmental Science Center in Maryland; and the Canadian Wildlife Service administers a flock at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta.
This species is perennially monogamous and typically begins egg production at age 4 years in the wild, but at ages 5 to 11 in captivity. Females lay a 2-egg clutch annually but seldom fledge more than 1 young. Both parents care for the young for 10 to 11 months, and young learn migration routes by following their parents. Wild birds may survive an estimated 25 years, captive birds 40 or more years.