Date of this Version
Proceedings of the North American Crane Workshop 13: 72
The whooping crane (Grus americana) is listed as endangered under the IUCN Red List, the United States Endangered Species Act, and the Canadian Species at Risk Act (BirdLife International 2012, CWS and USFWS 2007). A major focus of recovery efforts for this endangered species is reintroduction to establish new populations (CWS and USFWS 2007). Captive populations are critical as a source of individuals for reintroduction efforts and also serve as insurance populations. Currently, there are a total of 157 whooping cranes held in captive breeding centers across North America, with the largest at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (PWRC) in Laurel, Maryland. Birds produced in this facility are currently being released as part of efforts to establish the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP, Urbanek et al. 2005) and in an effort to establish a non-migratory population in Louisiana. In the past decade, PWRC has produced and released annually an average of 18 birds into the wild; however, reproductive performance of birds at this facility is lower than desired. PWRC had a 60% fertility rate for eggs laid from 2000 through 2010 (J. N. Chandler, personal communication, 2011). Furthermore, reproductive onset in this captive population appears to be delayed compared to wild populations. In wild populations, reproductive onset (production of sperm and eggs) normally occurs ~5 years of age in both males and females, ~2 years after initial pair formation occurs (Ellis et al., 1996), while some females in the EMP have laid eggs earlier than 5 years of age (Converse et al. 2011). However, PWRC females in some cases do not start to lay eggs until 7 years of age (Mirande et al. 1996). Currently, the PWRC population consists of a total of 74 whooping cranes, including 22 pairs. Six of these pairs (27%) are consistently infertile (i.e., no production of fertile eggs) and 3 other pairs (14%) have low fertility (30- 45% fertility in eggs laid), which is variable from year to year. Six pairs (27%) are recently formed and have not produced eggs, and so have unknown fertility. This leaves only 7 pairs (33%) which contribute maximally to PWRC’s chick production (J. N. Chandler, personal communication, 2011). Because of the challenges occurring within this captive colony, PWRC and Smithsonian National Zoo have initiated a joint research project to identify potential underlying causes of poor reproduction in captive whooping cranes.