Landmark achievement in Whooping Crane conservation inspires efforts to save the Siberian Cranes

27 October 2006 | News story

The first successful nesting of wild whooping cranes in the American Midwest since the 1890s marks an important milestone in the long running conservation programme to save the world’s rarest crane.

Russian crane conservationists hope to emulate this success by employing similar techniques to save the threatened Siberian crane. Members of the IUCN SSC Crane Specialist Group are closely involved in both projects.

This year, for the first time for over 100 years, wild whooping cranes Grus americana successfully fledged two young in Wisconsin, USA, marking their return to the Midwest as breeding species since they were hunted to extinction in the region in the 1890s. The last recorded nesting was in Iowa in 1894.

Until recently, whooping cranes were one of the world’s rarest birds. In 1940, they were reduced to 15 individuals that were confined to one breeding site in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada. These birds migrate south every year to winter in southern Texas, USA. Today, thanks to long term concerted conservation efforts to protect the birds and their habitats in North America, this population has slowly increased. Last winter, 220 were counted on their wintering grounds in Texas.

The breeding birds in Wisconsin are part of a major initiative by the US-Canada Whooping Crane Recovery team to establish two wild populations through the release of captive reared birds. The second release site is on the Kissimmee Praire in
Florida, USA. (Captive flocks have been established by collecting eggs from the wild population and the number of captive birds has reached 120 individuals in four major centres).

At both release sites, there are now about 60 birds. In Wisconsin, one pair attempted to breed in 2005 and this year, after five pairs nested unsuccessfully, a second attempt by one pair successfully fledged two young. The total population of wild, re-introduced and captive birds is now about 450, and is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

A key feature of the re-introduction project in the Midwest involved the creation of a migratory flock that moves between Wisconsin and traditional wintering grounds in Florida. In 2001, the imaginative technique of teaching captive reared birds to follow ultra-light aircraft was tried, because the young birds had no experienced mature birds to follow. The experiment worked and they now migrate unaided.

The success of the whooping crane conservation project has inspired a similar programme to help the Siberian crane Grus leucogeranus, listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Breeding in the far north of Siberia, it used to occur in three distinct sub-populations. However, the central population was last observed on their Indian wintering site in 2002, and only three birds from the western population were recorded on their Iranian wintering grounds in 2005. Fortunately there are about 3,000 Siberian cranes in the eastern population that winter at Poyang lake in China. Hunting and loss of wetlands are the main reasons for their decline.

As part of the efforts to save the Siberian crane, a conservation captive rearing programme began in the 1970s, using birds from the central and eastern populations. The birds are being reared in three centres, including the Russian Oka Nature Reserve. There are no genetic differences between the geographical populations so in future these birds could be released anywhere within the species historical range.

Russian conservationists, through the support of ITERA (an oil and gas company) and the Strekh Foundation, have sought to emulate the techniques successfully employed by their North American counterparts to teach captive reared birds to migrate.

Early results have been encouraging. This autumn, two captive reared Siberian cranes, together with two Eurasian cranes, were successfully trained to follow an ultra light aircraft from the Kunovat River (the western Siberian cranes former breeding grounds) 1500km south to the Belozerki Nature Reserve in southern Russia.

The four cranes were returned to the Oka Nature Reserve and will be released with wild cranes this spring with the hope they will migrate north to the area where they fledged on the the Kunovat River. Eventually it is hoped to lead flocks of juvenile Siberian cranes to winter with Eurasian cranes in Uzbekistan.

For more information contact:

Andrew McMullin, IUCN Species Programme Communications Officer

Tel: +41 (0)22 999 0153
Email: mcmullina@iucn.org

Crane Specialist Group