Whooping cranes are America’s largest wading birds and also one of the most endangered animals in the country. Standing nearly five feet tall with a wingspan of seven feet and weighing more than 15 pounds, these graceful birds are an impressive sight on land and in the air—that is, if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the exceedingly rare birds.
Crane species are also some of the oldest animals on the planet. Some crane fossils found in Nebraska were estimated to be some 9 million years old. Whooping cranes were once common across much of the Midwest, where they fed along marshlands and scavenged spent grain in corn and wheat fields. Populations then dwindled to just 21 individuals in the wild by 1941 as a result of widespread habitat loss. The species was first listed as endangered in 1967. And in 2010, fewer than 400 individual birds were found in the wild, with only another 150 being raised in captivity.
Today, dedicated conservation programs are working hard to restore these magnificent white creatures to large portions of their remaining habitat. The primary breeding grounds for whooping cranes is in northeastern Alberta in Canada, but a reintroduced population has also started breeding in central Wisconsin. It’s here that pilots with Operation Migration flying open-wing aircraft have been retraining cranes to migrate down to Florida.
Whooping up the tourism dollars
For 10 years, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin was the home of an annual Whooping Crane Festival that attracted thousands of visitors and brought in more than $40,000 each year for the local community. A similar festival in Port Aransas, Texas, where whooping cranes spend their winters, is now in its 16th year and is a favorite birding trip for many nature enthusiasts.
Each year 70,000 to 80,000 people visit Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, mostly during the winter, and spend significant amounts locally on lodging, gasoline and supplies. Rockport Chamber of Commerce in Texas estimates that whooping crane-related activities result in annual gross economic benefits of $6 million to the local economy. Approximately 80,000 people also visit the Platte River area of Nebraska each year during peak of spring crane migrations, expending approximately $15 million.