In the 1940s, the North American whooping crane population had dwindled dangerously low, to fewer than 20 cranes living in the wild.
Now that number is closer to 600, thanks in large part to recovery efforts like the one housed at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.
More than 200 people turned out for the July 28 kickoff to the renewed Adopt-A-Whooper program at the National Wildlife Visitor Center, said Jeanne Latham, a volunteer with the Friends of Patuxent. There are about 68 cranes in the refuge's flock, and every year, more are introduced back into the wild.
The four-hour-long event July 28 featured many activities for children: a station for coloring, a table for folding origami whooping cranes; a migration exercise; and an introductory discussion by Ken Lavish, chair of the Friends' Adopt-A-Whooper Committee.
"We had to bring the program back," Lavish said. "The main thing is, this was a North American bird way too close to extinction, and to make that jump from the 1940s to today, slowly increasing, that's big."
The program had existed for several years at the research center, Latham said, but several changes in leadership caused its suspension. Now, however, it's back in full force.
The adoption in Adopt-A-Whooper is a symbolic one, Latham said. All the proceeds go back to the recovery efforts at the research center , which ultimately help the young cranes lead a life in the wild. It's still too early to tell how much the event garnered for the program in terms of donations, Latham said, but "we've had several donations, and more are coming in."
Animals have to be valued, Lavish said. At the refuge, he said, it's about putting wildlife first and, in a way, he said, it's about respect.
"It's like when you go into someone else's house," he said. "This world is their house, and you have to be respectful when you go into someone else's house."
The work done at Patuxent is about conservation, Latham said — conservation of habitats and "the critters that live there." And that includes the cranes, she said.
"This is about keeping people educated about the species and what we can do to support them," Latham said.
It's the exact reason Janis Hagey, of Bowie, said she brings her grandsons, Jason, 6, and Kole Hagey, 4, to the center.
"It's so important our young people are exposed to nature," Hagey said. The adoption program just made the trip all the more special, she said.
"I'm excited about the whooping crane recovery program," Hagey said. "It's great to know that it's based in our own community, and I want to support the recovery effort."
Origami whooping cranes in hand, Jason and Kole reflected on what they had learned at the program.
"I'm not taller than the adult cranes, but I'm at least taller than the (juvenile) ones," Jason said.
Adult whooping cranes grow to be about 5 feet tall, Latham said, and juvenile cranes stand at about 3 to 4 feet. Cranes are the tallest birds in North America, Lavish said, with 8-foot wingspans; still, adults only weigh 15 pounds.
Lavish would know. As a volunteer, he spends much of his time dressed in full crane regalia, in a costume to mimic an adult whooping crane. Clad entirely in white, Lavish has a whooping-crane-head puppet on his hand, which he uses to feed, interact with and teach crane chicks in Patuxent's captive propagation program. The costume, Latham said, is to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans, which would prevent them from living a healthy life in the wild.
Currently, there are 11 crane chicks at Patuxent that are being trained for release into the Eastern Migratory Flock — one of the only wild flocks on the continent.
The chicks are trained to follow ultra-light aircraft to mimic migratory flight, Lavish said. Then, they're transported to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin, where they join the Eastern Migratory Flock, which travels from Wisconsin to St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida Panhandle.
The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is one of the leading facilities in the effort to restore the crane population, Lavish said, making the visitor center an often-overlooked jewel in the area.
"We're the leading facility; how about that," Lavish said. "I grew up here, and the biggest facility for work on saving the whooping cranes is right here in my hometown. … And a lot of people don't know we exist at all."
But through educational initiatives, like the adoption launch, more people are learning.
"I like (coming here)," said Kole. "We learn about different kind of things, different animals. It's cool."