AMONG THE 68 SPECIES of birds on the endangered list, few went closer to the brink than the whooping crane. From the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 birds that inhabited the continent when English settlers arrived in Jamestown and Plymouth, the flock dropped to 14 in 1939. Gunners, habitat destruction and the draining of wetlands for real-estate expansion were among the man-made causes of the decline. What averted a total wipeout isn't known, except perhaps that a few riflemen had poor aim, but it appears at the moment as if the whoopers are winging up, up and away from extinction. Last spring, they numbered 126.

Much of the recovery occurred at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Eggs taken from nesting grounds were hatched in incubators. The chicks were carefully nurtured by the motherhen talents of the center's biologists. When the birds matured, they formed breeding flocks. In addition to the modest population growth at Patuxent, another experiment was proving successful at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. Some sandhill cranes were not only willing to sit on whooping crane eggs but also agreeable to raise their adopted young.

Many more flocks will be needed before the whoopers are off the endangered list, but for now, whether the recovery rates a shout for joy or only a sigh of relief, the increase is worth noting. Happily, other species are also coming out of the pesticide era with their identity, if not their numbers, intact. In Maine and in the Chesapeake Bay area, bald eagles are being seen again. In Maine, the hatching rate has almost tripled in three years. The brown pelicans in parts of Florida are thriving.

The lesson from all this flapping is that if man can destroy wildlife he can also replenish it. It doesn't have to be an us-or-them situation. With some diligence and foresight, it can be us and them. The skies and the continent are big enough. In the next few years, the unanswered question about the whoopers is whether they can take up where the incubators and the nest-shifting have left off. If the birds could voice their preference, we think they would take overprotection rather than underprotection. The ideal is for nature to balance itself, but man is only beginning to see the wisdom of that truth.