The world's whooping crane population, down to 16 in 1941, probably will exceed 200 this winter, perhaps the highest number of the regal white birds this century.

"They have taken a nice jump in the last few years," said James Lewis, whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque. "We have to give nature an awful lot of credit for that."This is our best year . . . since probably early this century or late last century. We're not sure really. We didn't have good figures back then, but I'd say it's probably the best since early this century."

Lewis said he expects about 145 cranes from Canada at their winter grounds at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Texas' Gulf Coast.

A flock of 18 birds from Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Idaho is expected at its winter grounds primarily along the central Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, Lewis said.

The Grays Lake flock was started in 1975 in an attempt to create a second whooping crane flock in case disaster should befall the Canadian flock.

For more than a decade, biologists have been removing eggs from whooping crane nests in the Canadian flock and placing them in sandhill crane nests at the Idaho refuge to boost the number of whooping cranes there.

The adopted whooping cranes are raised by their sandhill foster parents and travel with the sandhill cranes 750 miles to their winter grounds in New Mexico.

A captive flock of 47 cranes is at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center at Laurel, Md., and another whooping crane lives at the International Crane Foundation at Baraboo, Wis.