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Tom Stehn's Report: Challenges to Crane Survival
March 2, 2007
Meet Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As you read Tom's report this week . . .
  1. Look for answers: In 14 nesting attempts between 1993 and 2006, "Al and Diane" have brought young to Aransas ___ times. They have brought ___ chicks to Aransas in 12 years, making them one of the most productive whooping crane pairs in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population of whooping cranes.
  2. Keep a list of things you wonder about whoopers, or humans' efforts to protect them.
  3. Send your questions to Ask the Expert starting March 23.

Dear Journey North,

I feel very fortunate to have been studying for 25 years the whooping cranes that winter at Aransas on the Texas coast. It is like I’m a school teacher and the cranes are my students. My class size has grown more than 3 times larger — from 71 whooping cranes when I first started in 1982 to the current flock size of 237.
Photo Howard Murph

Meet "Al and Diane," the Lamar Pair
Although every whooping crane is special because it is so rare, some of my “students” stand out more in my memory than others. For example, let me write about cranes that I affectionately call “Al and Diane.” They're named after a wonderful couple that owns the property where this crane pair first set up their winter territory in 1993. The territory is located in the salt marsh on the Lamar Peninsula across the bay from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, so the official name of this pair is the “Lamar” pair.

Twenty Years With Al and Diane
“Al and Diane” were hatched in 1986. They are now 20 years old. They were captured as chicks in Canada just before they learned to fly. Plastic and metal bands were attached to their legs to serve as ID tags. Biologists got close to the cranes by helicopter. Then they ran after the flightless chicks until they were able to catch them — usually when the chicks tried to hide in tall vegetation. By 1994, the colored plastic marking bands had fallen off, but each adult bird still has an aluminum band just above what looks like the knee (but is really the crane's ankle).

A Productive Pair
The pair of cranes first nested together when they were 7 years old. The pair did not bring a chick to Aransas the first two times they nested, which is typical for inexperienced whooping crane parents. But after those first two tries, they have brought 10 chicks to Aransas in 12 years, making them one of the most productive whooping crane pairs in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population of whooping cranes.

Photo Sharon Fisher
The Lamar Pair's Productivity
Year Chick(s) in WBNP* Chick(s) at ANWR**
1993
0
0
1994
0
0
1995
1
1
1996
0
0
1997
2
2
1998
1
1
1999
2
1
2000
1
0
2001
2
1
2002
0
0
2003
1
1
2004
1
1
2005
1
0
2006
2
2

* WBNP = Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.
** ANWR = Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Best Parents
The cranes “Al and Diane” are certainly some of our best parents in the flock, having raised a large number of chicks. In 14 nesting attempts between 1993 and 2006, this pair has brought young to Aransas 8 times. For many years, Canadian biologists would take the second egg from the nest and hatch it in captivity. In 1997, the very first year when both eggs were left in the nests, this pair brought 2 chicks to Aransas. In 2006, they once again brought 2 chicks.

The Other Al and Diane
The human owners of the property quickly adopted the crane pair. They fed wildlife year around using a metal game feeder that has a timer and throws out corn a few times a day. The whooping cranes quickly learned to eat the corn at the feeder. Although feeding wildlife is generally a bad idea since it can provide wildlife the wrong type of food and make the animals too tame, whooping cranes often eat corn as they migrate between Canada and the U.S. I wonder if the extra calories that the crane pair gets from the feeder has helped them lay large, healthy eggs and hatch out strong chicks, particularly in years when natural foods were somewhat scarce.

A Generous Gift to the Cranes

The humans Al and Diane have over 700 acres of land where the cranes live. Al and Diane sold their marsh to the Texas Nature Conservancy, which later was donated to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The higher portions of the property are covered with huge oak trees that provide habitat for all kinds of native Texas wildlife. Al and Diane sold a conservation easement on this upland portion of their property, promising that forever and ever, this land will remain as wildlife habitat and not be developed. The agreement does allow 2 houses to be built on the property, but no more. The one house currently on the property is operated as a Bed and Breakfast that is rented out to crane lovers. You can sit on the screen porch and watch the whooping crane family come in to feed at the game feeder.

A Treat
What a special treat it is this year to see the two chicks that the adult whooping crane raised this winter. This winter, 7 crane pairs each brought two chicks to Aransas, the most 2-chick families that Aransas has ever had. Both the cranes “Al and Diane” and the people “Al and Diane” are special. Al and Diane truly care about wildlife and by protecting their property it will remain a haven for wildlife forever. This is quite a gift to give to everyone that loves wildlife. I am grateful to have met two people who obviously care about the welfare of wildlife and wild lands, and who are willing to go out of their way to ensure that these natural resource treasures are protected and conserved for future generations.

Tom Stehn
USFWS

I want to thank conservation biologist Dr. John Cannon who helped write the material in this report and is a great friend for the whooping cranes.

 

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