By Alex DeMetrick

LAUREL, Md. (WJZ) — It was on the edge of extinction. But thanks to researchers in Maryland, America’s largest bird is still flying.

Alex DeMetrick reports, despite that success, the whooping crane’s recovery is still an ongoing struggle.

Once, their numbers were vast, but hunting, predators and habitat loss nearly wiped out the whooping crane. Only 16 were left alive in America.

“We figure that there were only three or four breeding females in that group of 16. So, almost miraculous, the whooping cranes have survived through that,” said Dr. John French, research manager.

At the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, all the whooping cranes alive today were bred from that handful of survivors. It’s taken work, trying to coax the birds into what they need to do naturally: from planting and removing artificial eggs to spur breeding, to dressing like cranes to keep them from imprinting on people while they are raised from young chicks, to operation migration, where fledglings learn a key fly-way from Wisconsin to Florida.

Roughly 500 cranes now survive. It’s still a low number.

“It is indeed. It is indeed. And still, the whooping crane is highly endangered because of it,” said French.

The crane’s original habitat of wet grassy plains is long gone. Finding habitat that will work today remains a challenge.

“Their only hope is that they’re going to have to become adapted and thrive in all sorts of different habitats. I think they’ve got a chance,” French said.

There are currently three wild colonies of whooping cranes located near the Gulf Coasts of Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

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