Just around the time that whooping cranes are heading back from their wintering grounds in southern U.S. to Canada, Ottawa has announced approval of one-year funding agreement with the Calgary Zoo for its captive-breeding program for the bird.
“Efforts to establish flocks of captive-bred whooping cranes like the program here at the Calgary Zoo are critical to help ensure the persistence of the species,” Environment Minister Peter Kent said in a news release.
Under the agreement, the federal government is committing $20,000 to the zoo program over one year.
Whooping cranes, which are found only in North America, reached near extinction levels early last century, with a population of only 14 adult birds. Collaborative conservation efforts between Canada and the U.S. has brought the levels back up, and the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta is currently home to around 300 of the migratory birds.
There are also flocks in parts of the U.S.—although they are currently not self-sustaining—that were established through a captive-breeding program with eggs collected from Canada.
“As the only breeding facility in Canada participating in the reintroduction efforts for these amazing birds, we are proud of the contribution the Calgary Zoo has made over the past two decades toward securing a future for whooping cranes in North America,” Clément Lanthier, president and CEO of the Calgary Zoo, said in the release.
The whooping cranes in the Wood Buffalo National Park make the Texas Gulf Coast their wintering habitat. The birds migrated south earlier than usual this winter season and are also returning sooner than normal.
“Normally, whooping crane spring migration begins in late March, with nearly all birds departing for the nesting grounds in Canada by mid-April,” Lee Ann Johnson Linam, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, said in a release.
“However, a USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) radio-tracking study and observations by volunteers with Texas Whooper Watch detected an earlier start to migration this year.”
The new patterns are an “interesting development,” Linam said, adding that the fact that the birds also explored new wintering grounds is a healthy sign.
The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, standing at nearly 150 centimetres (5 feet). The bird is seen as a flagship species in the North American conservation movement.