By Harrison Spilar, Ontario Field and Outreach Technician – Piping Plover and Urban Programs
Who knew birds were such talented dancers? Mark Bidwell and John Conkin certainly did. On our latest episode of The Warbler’s podcast, we had the privilege of interviewing both of them. They have dedicated a significant amount of time studying Whooping Cranes in their natural habitat. Whooping Cranes are massive birds and hold the title for being the tallest bird in North America, standing at approximately five feet tall with a wingspan of about seven feet. Witnessing their dancing spectacle is an experience that most people can only dream of.
Mark Bidwell is a research ecologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. He explained that dancing is a behaviour found in all 15 species of crane, and serves as a form of non-verbal communication, similar to body language. Cranes engage in dancing to strengthen the bond between pairs and to attract a potential mate. They can also use it to express territoriality or aggression towards neighbouring cranes. Bidwell describes the dance of the Whooping Crane as lots of wings beating and flapping, with head nodding and lots of leaping. Males typically initiate the dance, and if a female shows interest, she will engage and start leaping as well. Some of the other behaviors that are associated with dancing can include “ruffling of their feathers, stomping their feet, and even making a growling sound”. It sounds like they’ve got some serious moves!
Whooping Crane. Photo: Lori Parker
Whooping Cranes are monogamous birds that mate for life. The dancing and various mating rituals take place every year throughout their lifecycle. As a migratory species, they perform in different spots along their migration route, almost as if they’re on tour.
Securing your chance to see a Whooping Crane performance might be a little tough, as they are an endangered species, with one self-sustaining population of about 500 individuals. They breed in the remote wetlands of Wood Buffalo National Park spanning the Alberta-Northwest Territories border and spend their winters on the Gulf Coast at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
The recovery of the Whooping Crane has gone down as one of the most remarkable stories in history. In the 1920’s, their population dwindled to a mere 15 birds, but has made an amazing recovery since then. After they stopped nesting in Saskatchewan, their breeding grounds remained unknown for some time. In 1954, after a decade long search, their breeding grounds were finally discovered in Wood Buffalo National Park. This is Canada’s largest national park and was established in 1922 to protect the Wood Bison. While there have been reintroductions of smaller populations, the Whooping Crane remains an incredibly rare bird.
John Conkin, a field biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, shared insights into the conservation programs in Canada, and the changes that are occurring as their breeding range expands. “Since the monitoring began in the 60s, the population has grown more than tenfold. And that breeding range has expanded about 300 times,” Conkin explained. The incredible research and field work done by biologists like Mark and John demonstrate the significant impact conservation can have on the success of a species at risk.
Whooping Crane. Photo: John Conkin
The Whooping Crane, like many other bird species, has faced challenges such as habitat fragmentation, overhunting, and climate change. Through the dedication of conservationists and citizen scientists, the species has managed to recover from near extinction, but there is still a long way to go. Mark and John are part of a team that are working to conduct a comprehensive health assessment of Whooping Cranes and the habitats they rely on. Findings will provide greater insights into the factors impacting their population numbers and will hopefully lead to further actions to benefit the species.
To learn more about the incredible Whooping Crane, and other endangered or threatened birds featured on our “Wake up Call” series, make sure you subscribe and tune into the latest episode of the Warblers Podcast.