The hopeful mid-century conservation story of the (still endangered) whooping crane
Robert Porter Allen was an ornithologist. He was born in 1905. By then, the whooping crane was already in trouble. Hunting and habitat loss had reduced the bird’s number. This happened even though the species was once found across North America. That's according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
In 1941, conservationists became concerned about the species. The whooping crane population had dwindled to the double digits. The birds are white-feathered and are the tallest bird species in North America. By 1941, they were critically endangered. Today the whooping crane is still an endangered species. But now it has a population in the hundreds, rather than the tens. This is due to Allen’s obsessive research and the concern of the conservation community.
“The bird has become the emblematic endangered species, thanks in part to its fierce charisma." That's according to Jennifer Holland writing for National Geographic. “Standing nearly five feet tall, it can spy a wolf—or a biologist—lurking in the reeds. It dances with springing leaps and flaps of its mighty wings to win a mate. Beak to the sky, it fills the air with whooping cries.”
In the ’40s, the remaining flock of cranes migrated every year from the Gulf Coast of Texas to somewhere in the north of Canada to breed. The conservation community didn’t know where the birds went. The wetlands where they wintered were growing scarcer and scarcer as they were drained and built on. And the birds were dying in large numbers on the migration flight. A tiny, non-migrating group of whooping cranes was alive in Louisiana in 1941. But the group had disappeared by the time Allen started his research.
Allen had done important work for Audubon on the roseate spoonbill before the war. So he was put on the whooping crane project. He moved with his family to a small town on the Gulf Coast. That's according to Alexander Sprunt IV writing in The Auk. “Over the next three years, he did almost constant field work. I took him from Texas up the cranes’ migration route to Nebraska, on into Saskatchewan, and beyond into the arctic in search of the elusive nesting ground of the whoopers,” writes Sprunt.
Studying the bird in its breeding habitat and seeing how many birds were born would allow conservationists to understand how to help the birds on their journey. But finding the whooping crane’s nesting site meant “difficult and fruitless air searches over northern Canada,” Sprunt writes.
In 1952, Allen authored Audubon’s report on the whooping crane. The definitive report was a call to arms for the conservation community. Among its grim findings: only 33 migratory “whoopers” remained, and their nesting site still hadn’t been found.
Then in 1954, the whooping crane’s breeding grounds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park were finally discovered. Allen headed north to study them firsthand, an “incredibly difficult journey,” in Sprunt’s words. Allen wrote a followup to his whooping crane report that laid the groundwork for conservationists to save the bird.
“Their efforts paid off slowly as the numbers reached 57 by 1970 and 214 by 2005,” writes the National Wildlife Federation. Today, the whooping crane is still listed as endangered, but as of 2017 there are roughly 600 birds alive in the wild and in captivity. Almost half that number, according to Rick Callahan for IndyStar, are part of the migratory colony Allen studied.