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Prairie Pothole Region, Wildlife

Where did the whooping cranes go?

Whooping cranes weren’t always so elusive. Spring and fall once brought flocks of these massive white birds to the Canadian Prairies.

January 29, 2020
A whooping crane shows off its impressive 2-meter wingspan
A whooping crane shows off its impressive 2-meter wingspan © DUC

Thousands of whooping cranes once migrated across North America each year. Standing an impressive 1.5 metres tall with a two-metre wingspan, these lithe, graceful birds had survived millions of years of planetary change. Despite the whooping crane’s resilience, it did not take long for populations to be decimated to near extinction following European settlement. By 1941, a mere 21 whooping cranes could be accounted for worldwide.

Through painstaking captive breeding and conservation efforts, more than 650 whooping cranes exist today. While this improvement is a noteworthy accomplishment, the future of the whooping crane’s survival is still not secure. Breeding pairs typically raise only one chick each season, making population growth slow, and threats such as extreme weather and human activity could undo their progress.

At least 500 of those 650 whooping cranes migrate through Saskatchewan each spring and fall. They spend about a month foraging for food to fuel their long trip south. The wetlands of Saskatchewan provide the whooping crane with vital staging grounds for their journey. Insects, snails, seeds, and plant roots in those wetlands are the food source that whooping cranes need to survive the trip south.

A rare sight: a whooping crane flock flies over a prairie wetland.
A rare sight: a whooping crane flock flies over a prairie wetland. © DUC

The existence of healthy wetlands and the biodiversity within those wetlands is what will give whooping cranes, and many other at-risk species, a fighting chance at survival. The model of habitat conservation that DUC has been following for more than 80 years has proven successful for waterfowl populations under its purview.

It’s time to take that same enthusiastic support and apply it to other species that are struggling to survive.

From tiny critters that often go unnoticed to impressive figures like the whooping crane or woodland caribou, the presence of all species in nature is important. Every creature and plant are connected. Globally, species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. One million plant and animal species on Earth are currently threatened with extinction, and 25 per cent of those species live in wetlands. The math is simple: conserving and restoring wetlands enhances biodiversity. It’s time to support the diverse organisms on our planet, for their sake and for ours.