This young whooping crane was raised by white-suited humans at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.

JONATHAN L. FIELY/USGS PATUXENT WILDLIFE RESEARCH CENTER

World’s biggest whooping crane breeding program winds down

Today, 33 whooping cranes were airlifted from Maryland to Louisiana, marking the beginning of the end of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS's) 50-year effort to help save these endangered birds. Scientists at USGS's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, spearheaded the recovery of Grus americana, whose numbers had once dropped to fewer than 20 in the wild. To bring back the majestic 1.3-meter-tall birds, biologists developed innovative methods, including using puppets in the shape of crane heads to teach chicks to feed and to follow ultralight aircraft on migratory flights.

Their numbers now stand at more than 700, and the center's breeding and caretaking protocol are now standard. "We feel as if our job is done," says the center's director, John French. The airlifted birds—and others remaining to be transferred—will now become part of captive breeding flocks.