Ottawa funds whooping crane breeding program

Ottawa funds whooping crane breeding program
A baby whooping crane feeds from a puppet hand made to look like its mother.Photo courtesy of Calgary Zoo.

A captive breeding program for the endangered whooping crane at the Calgary Zoo has received a boost from the federal government to help revive the species that is slowly increasing in numbers after being on the brink of extinction in the 1940s.

A one-year funding arrangement of $20,000 for the program was announced last Thursday by Environment Minister Peter Kent.

“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,” Kent said in a press release. “We are pleased to work with the zoo to bring back this iconic species.”

The Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research, established in 1999 to develop conservation initiatives and to protect and restore endangered species and their ecosystems, in partnership with veterinary experts from the zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre, is one of only three North American groups devoted to whooping crane conservation-breeding efforts.

“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 towards securing a future for whooping cranes in North America,” Clément Lanthier, zoo president and CEO, said in the release. “This support from the federal government will help continue this important work.”

Low egg hatching success is a major obstacle the centre routinely encounters, its website states.

These new federal funds will go towards continued research in developing ways to improve hatching success.

Researchers are currently gathering reproductive data and other information by using specially-developed telemetric eggs, or eggs with sensors placed in the mother’s nest to measure temperature.

They are also focused on studying how to optimize the incubation process by looking at eggshell characteristics and microclimates (the environment inside the egg) experienced by whooping crane fetuses in artificial versus natural incubation environments. The behaviour of parenting and non-parenting captive, adult breeding pairs in both large and small enclosures is also being probed at the zoo.

Whooping crane eggs bred at the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre, known as the “zoo ranch” in Calgary, are put into one of two programs, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) or the Direct Autumn Release (DAR), if the eggs are identified as “eligible.”

WCEP eggs are shipped to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland where they are hatched and reared until they are 45 days old. Here they are taught to “imprint” on an ultralight aircraft that will lead them in their migration. They are then sent to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and, when migration time arrives, the adolescent whooping cranes follow the aircraft to their wintering grounds at either the St. Marks Refuge or the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, learning the migratory route so they can do it on their own the next year.

DAR eggs are sent directly to Necedah and then individually released into existing WCEP flocks. According to the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre, “this way, the existing populations of whooping cranes are continually supplemented by new arrivals.”

Canada is home to the world’s largest migratory population of whooping cranes. The flock winters in the Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and summers in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories.

According to Environment Canada, there are almost 300 birds in the migratory Wood Buffalo National Park flock.

It was estimated by the International Crane Foundation that only 16 whooping cranes were left on the entire planet in 1941-1942.

Whooping cranes were designated as endangered in Canada in the year 2000. The birds are protected in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act.

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