News / Calgary

Calgary Zoo restores whooping crane population with advanced techniques

Veterinarian goes behind the scenes of conservation efforts

Whooping cranes faced extinction in the mid-1900s, but the population has been restored with the help of the Calgary Zoo. Dr. Sandie Black offers insight into the zoo’s conservation efforts behind the scenes.

Jennifer Friesen/ For Metro

Whooping cranes faced extinction in the mid-1900s, but the population has been restored with the help of the Calgary Zoo. Dr. Sandie Black offers insight into the zoo’s conservation efforts behind the scenes.

Whooping cranes nearly vanished in the mid-1900s.

Since then, the population has stabilized with the help of the Calgary Zoo and several other conservation centres across North America. So much so, that they were honoured by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums with the North American Conservation Award.

But what is it that made the program so successful?

Dr. Sandie Black, head of veterinary services for the Calgary Zoo, said that the secret to success is twofold.

“Some of it is careful resource management… the second part is those organizations working for the better good,” she said.

Dr. Black said that the science of breeding has evolved since the 50s and 60s, and the Calgary Zoo has helped to develop artificial insemination techniques and have pushed the science of the captive breeding of the species.  

The Calgary Zoo is largely responsible for maintaining a healthy breeding population, and sending the eggs down to their partners in the United States to be hatched and reintroduced into society.

The zoo displays couple three-year-old female cranes on display at the zoo.  Dr. Black calls them her hippie birds – Sunflower and Moonbeam. The rest of the cranes are kept and closely monitored at Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre just south of Calgary, for a total of 22 birds.

The birds at the conservation centre are managed carefully through the winter and spring, and experience a mini-migration from one pen to another. This small movement is enough to prep their hormones for mating season.

According to Dr. Black, like people the whooping cranes need to have some chemistry.  Mating behaviour involves some dancing and a call in unison, this this ramps them up hormonally and allows for an output of fertile eggs.

Once the birds have mated, their eggs are sent down to the United States to several partner conservation centres. From there, the cranes are hatched and reintroduced into new populations.  

The first is the Eastern Migratory Population, where the birds are brought to Wisconsin in the fall and migrate to Florida.

The second is what’s known as a resident population in Louisiana, where the birds don’t migrate.

Facts:

Named for its calls, whooping cranes are growing stronger in number – increasing from only 21 birds in 1941 to well over 364 in 1997.

Whooping Cranes are North America’s tallest birds, up to 1.5 metres tall.

The Calgary Zoo is the first in Canada to display Whooping Cranes.

Whooping Cranes use their bills to search for and gobble up plants, shellfish, insects, fish and frogs.  

When flying, they glide up and down hot air currents on a journey of 4,000 kilometres twice a year.