The whooping crane is an endangered species with a success story to tell. Dangerously close to extinction, only 22 cranes remained in the wild in 1940. Year-by-year, the fragile population has slowly recovered reaching an all-time high of 158 birds last winter. These 158 cranes, the world's entire wild population, spend the winter at a single wildlife refuge on the Gulf of Mexico near Austwell, Texas. Each year, we catch up with the cranes in early March when refuge biologist Tom Stehn is awaiting their departure. After spending the winter under Stehn's watchful eye, the entire flock is about to travel 2,700 miles to their nesting grounds in northern Canada.
As the cranes cross the Great Plains during April, students will receive weekly on-line weather lessons from biologist Wally Jobman. They'll learn how the cranes' migration is affected by the weather patterns the scientist describes. Looking at a weather map students can ask, "Is this a good day for migration?" Based on their new knowledge about thermal currents and the cranes' favored winds, they can predict where the cranes will appear next. This feature will make an excellent 6-week unit on weather.
Students will discover what scientists are doing to protect this small and vulnerable population. For example, in order to establish a second migratory flock, research is now underway that explores some of migration's deepest mysteries. Since 11 of the world's 15 crane species are threatened, research and conservation efforts will also be featured from points around the globe such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and Russia's Far East.