Historically, the Whooper's breeding range stretched from Alberta, Canada to the southern end of Lake Michigan. The wintering grounds included parts of northern Mexico, the Texas Gulf coast, and parts of the Atlantic coast. There were groups of non-migratory whoopers that lived in Louisiana, and possibly some other areas in the southeastern United States. There was a sharp decline of the population of whoopers starting in the 1800s due to man-made changes of habitat, hunting, and feather and egg collecting.
In 1937, fewer than 20 birds remained, all in a population that wintered in Texas. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in that year to protect the Whooping Crane and its habitat. By 1941, biologists at zoos tried to breed Whooping Cranes in captivity. In 1966, biologists at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center began a captive breeding program from 12 eggs collected from the wild in an effort to increase flock numbers.
Along with the collected eggs, Canus, a young Whooping Crane, named as a symbol of cooperation between Canada and the United States, was a long-time participant in both the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) and the USGS efforts to preserve and restore wild Whooping Crane populations in North America. Canus was rescued from the wild with a fractured wing in 1964 when there were just 42 Whooping Cranes left in world. After a period of time in Colorado, Canus was shipped to Maryland in 1966 to become the first Whooping Crane in the endangered species recovery program at Patuxent. He sired a large portion of the Whooping Cranes in captivity and is the progenitor of many that have been released in the wild. The first Whooping Crane to fledge in the US in 60 years, is a descendent of Canus. To learn more about Canus, visit < http://whoopingcrane.com/cranus-186-whooping-crane-descendants/ >
Patuxent already had the experience and infrastructure to work with endangered birds. Given its moderate climate and close proximity to aviculture expertise, it was established as a captive breeding site for Whooping Cranes.
Most of the Whooping Cranes from Patuxent originated from eggs collected from the wild flock in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Because the Whooping Cranes in the Texas population breed in Canada, biologists from both the U. S. and Canada have been cooperating in implementing the recovery plan.