For the Birds Radio Program: Death of Canus the Whooping Crane

Original Air Date: Feb. 17, 2003

In January, an important elderly Whooping Crane died.

Duration: 3′48″


In 1964, when the entire world population of Whooping Cranes was a mere 42 birds, scientists doing an aerial survey over the Canadian tundra spotted a young Whooping Crane with a broken wing. The bird was completely flightless, doomed to die when winter set in, so the scientists worked out a deal with American and Canadian wildlife protection agencies, flew down and trapped the bird and transported him to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. They named him Canus, combining the names of the two countries which Whooping Cranes call home.

Canus’s wing needed to be amputated, but otherwise he was in fine health. Researchers wanted to use him for captive breeding, but despite Canus’s healthy interest in a mate, his lack of a wing made the actual act of mating impossible. So the researchers got together with the University of Maryland’s agricultural center in Beltsville and began the first whooping crane artificial insemination program in the world.

Scientists knew that Whooping Cranes normally produce two eggs per pair, but they learned that if they removed eggs from the nest, the cranes would replace them. By this technique they could induce pairs to produce as many as 6 or 8 additional eggs a year, tripling or quadrupling the number of chicks each year. Now, thanks in large part to Canus and the research that he inspired, there are more than 400 cranes in the world. The species is far from out of the woods, but its future is at least somewhat more secure because of this one bird’s fecundity and the research he inspired.

Canus had two mates in his 39 year life. His first mate died almost 20 years ago, and Patuxent scientists paired him with a new female, which they called Mrs. C. The two of them were such good parents that they raised many chicks as foster babies after they grew too old to produce viable eggs themselves. Some of their offspring have been among the Whooping Cranes released in the wild, and Lucky, the first crane hatched in the wild in the new Florida non-migratory flock, is one of their grandchildren.

Thirty-nine years old is an extraordinary age for a crane. Canus suffered from arthritis for the last few years. He had a heater in his pen to make him more comfortable, but on January 18, Patuxent staff found him lying on his side so they rushed him to the center’s veterinary hospital. But after two hours, Canus died.

There is something poignant about losing any bird—even God himself notices the fall of a sparrow. And Canus had such significance for the humans dedicating their lives to saving Whooping Cranes that attention must be paid. But somehow his death seems saddest when I think of Mrs. C. Although Whooping Cranes mate for life, in time after the death of a mate, many cranes adjust and accept a new one. But Mrs. C hasn’t accepted Canus’s loss yet—she’s been observed watching the skies and making the call Whooping Cranes make to locate their mates.