Coincidentally, when we returned home Sunday evening we found multiple phone and email alerts from friends telling us that two whooping cranes had been in a wet field near Dennison, Minnesota (just a few miles from Northfield) for the previous two days. Dan Tallman's Bird Blog devoted a blog post to them on Monday, and here is a video that an acquaintance of mine, Lisa Graff, took while they were here, showing distinctive leaping and wing-flapping courtship behavior. (Great capture, Lisa!)
Whooping cranes were also spotted last summer at the McKnight Prairie in Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum. With these multiple sightings, it is tempting to hope that the greater Northfield area may become a regular visiting spot for these birds from the Wisconsin population (see more below).
Now one of the rarest birds on earth, the whooping crane once occupied North America from central Canada to Mexico and from Utah to the Atlantic. Due to loss of habitat, hunting and egg collection, the population dwindled until only one natural, self-sustaining flock remained. In the 1970s and '80s, there was an attempt to foster whooping crane eggs with much more robust sandhill crane populations, but it did not result in successful pair-bonding among the fostered whooping cranes and so the project was abandoned. According to the International Crane Foundation's whooping crane page:
In 1999, governmental, non-profit, and private organizations united to form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) to establish a new, migratory flock of Whooping Cranes to the core part of their historic breeding range. This flock migrates between Wisconsin and coastal Florida. To re-establish a migration route that was completely lost, the chicks are conditioned to follow an ultralight aircraft at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. The aircraft guides them on their first migration south. In the fall, the young Whooping Cranes and a team of pilots and biologists begin the 1200 mile journey to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The birds spend the winter in Florida and return unassisted to Wisconsin in the spring. In 2006, this flock numbered over 60 birds.
Horribly, three young, banded, transmitter-bearing whooping cranes from this precarious population, on their first migration to Florida, were shot and killed in Georgia this past December, and two more suffered the same fate in Alabama in February, despite being protected by the Endangered Species Act, state laws and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Rewards are being offered for information leading to arrests and successful prosecution in these cases. Two men (one a minor) who shot two whoopers in Indiana in 2009 recently received only probation, court fees and a $1 fine for the offense, and were never charged with violations of federal law. Apparently the pair were out indiscriminately shooting whatever animals they saw, "kind of like target practice," according to the article in the preceding link. It is heartbreaking to consider the effects of such thoughtlessness not only on the tiny whooping crane population but also on those who have invested so much of themselves in the rearing and training of these precious cranes.
I encourage your support of the International Crane Foundation, whose website is savingcranes.org. I'll close here with a short video of the two cranes at the ICF.