Whooping cranes, named for their loud whooping call, are North America’s tallest bird and one of our most endangered. As these birds are very sensitive to changes in their environment, relatively slow-growing, and can struggle with fertility issues, the rate at which they naturally reproduce in the wild is slow and leaves them vulnerable to extinction. By the mid-1900s, the whooping crane population plunged to an unprecedented low of only 15 birds, due to habitat loss and over-hunting. Thanks to conservation efforts, over 500 individuals persist in the wild today – most of which migrate to the Texas coast every fall. Despite being a valuable and iconic part of our state’s natural heritage, the whooping crane’s future is uncertain without continued conservation intervention.
After the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Maryland lost funding and was no longer able to care for their whooping cranes, the Dallas Zoo immediately offered support. As one of only six organizations worldwide selected to participate in the whooping crane breeding program, the Dallas Zoo’s innovative solution was to create the Whooping Crane Center of Texas (WCCT) – a breed-and-release conservation facility designed with help from crane experts and staffed by the Zoo’s experienced bird department. WCCT’s mission is to maintain and assist with increasing the whooping crane population. Dallas Zoo staff’s collective experience working with and breeding large birds, including 10 different species of cranes, qualifies them as one of only a handful of zoological institutions that can care for and successfully breed whooping cranes. Dallas Zoo is a TxN Conservation Partner.
Project Description & History
The five-acre WCCT facility is located at city-owned Samuell Farm in Mesquite, Texas, and began the first phase of construction in 2018. The first two phases of the project will be completed by summer 2019, before the cranes arrive. Successive phases will include expanded enclosures, dedicated on-site medical and chick-rearing facilities. Additional project goals include training more staff in artificial insemination and fertility monitoring techniques, installing camera systems for security and research, and recruiting interns to undertake observational or educational projects. Though closed to the public, the state-of-the-art conservation facility will be invaluable to supplementing wild whooping crane populations.
Captive breed-and-release efforts at the Dallas Zoo and five other zoological organizations across North America help to sustain the species and increase their population at a faster pace. Zoologists at the WCCT will create ideal breeding conditions for the cranes, and are trained to use assisted reproductive methods in the event of fertility issues. WCCT will measure long-term project success by the number of successful pairings facilitated among adult cranes, the number of chicks hatched, the number of cranes successfully released into the wild, and the number of people engaged in crane conservation and education activities. Breed-and-release programs like theirs will release young birds into small, currently nonviable flocks with the intention of encouraging these populations to become self-sustaining. Whooping cranes will be classified as endangered until their population tops at least 1000 individuals comprising three viable breeding flocks.
Though the WCCT facility itself is closed to the public, the Zoo is raising awareness about whooping cranes and their conservation in the Dallas community by hosting related activities, events, and programs on Zoo grounds and in the DFW area. WCCT seeks to create and put in place informational and inspirational graphics, curricula, member newsletters, scripts for animal presentations and in-park safari rides, and media releases that engage Dallas Zoo guests and stakeholders with whooping crane conservation. Around one million people visit the Dallas Zoo on an annual basis. This reflects the number of annual Dallas Zoo guests who will engage with whooping crane conservation activities and messaging. Once the habitat for the non-breeding crane pair at the Dallas Zoo is built, patrons will be able to see and hear the endangered species in person.
In addition, the Zoo offers regular opportunities to visit the wintering grounds of wild whooping cranes along the Texas Gulf Coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and participate in habitat restoration activities. This programming helps drive ecotourism revenue along the Texas Gulf Coast and provides the Dallas Zoo with educational opportunities to engage zoo guests and local students with conservation efforts for native species.