Six whoooping cranes born and raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel are to be shipped to Canada next week as part of an international effort to save the endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Patuxent research center, is shipping the birds to the Calgary Zoological Society in Alberta, Canada, to establish a third captive flock and guard against the chance that an epidemic or disaster might erase the cranes' 26-year recovery.
Whooping cranes, the tallest birds in North America at about 5 feet, have been deemed endangered since 1967. They were once abundant along the Atlantic seaboard, but the last wild flock had dwindled to 16 by 1941.
The first captive flock was established in 1967 at Patuxent using eggs and a young crippled whooping crane that had been rescued from Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park. The flock was split in 1989, and a second breeding center was established at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis.
Whooping cranes have begun to rebound. A wild flock numbering 150 migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan, which outlines "how we're going to bring them back from the brink," calls for the creation of two more wild flocks, said Nell Baldacchino, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The captive flocks are used to breed birds for release into the wild, she said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service released whooping cranes raised in Laurel and Baraboo into the wilds of Florida in January. If that flock succeeds, another is planned in Canada.