2004-05: WHOOPING CRANE POPULATION REACHES RECORD HIGH
By Tom Stehn, USFWS
Stehn, Aransas NWR
If I was giving the year 2004 a grade for whooping cranes, I would
grant it an A+!
The population wintering in Texas surpassed the 200 barrier for the
first time since counts were started in the 1930's. A record 216
endangered whooping cranes arrived for the 2004-2005 winter at Aransas
mid-coast region in Texas. This is likely the highest number of whooping
cranes wintering in Texas in the last 100 years. It exceeds the
record of winter 2004 by 22 birds. There is definitely cause to celebrate:
the wild population
has doubled in the past 18 years!
I want to relay a story about how the actual record count came about.
I'd been in Florida for crane meetings and flew home, only to have
a flight delayed in Houston and then cancelled at midnight. I grabbed
three other people waiting in line at the airline counter and announced
I was going to rent a car and make the 4-hour drive home to Corpus
Christi. I arrived home at 4:45 AM and slept really hard for 1.5
hours. I was back at the airport at 7:15
AM for the crane census flight. I was obviously exhausted, but functioning
When the 7-hour crane census flight was completed, I added
up numbers as the pilot and I were flying back from the crane area.
I came up with a total above 200. I immediately figured I had made
a mistake. After all, I was adding up the numbers from the 9 flight
maps I use for recording the location of every whooping crane I spot
on the aerial survey. Only upon adding and re-adding the numbers did
I confirm the record tally
I hadn't believed it at first—but the population was above the
Nesting = Good News
The current population increase is due to very good nest production
in 2004. The Canadian Wildlife Service reported that 54 nesting
pairs fledged a record 40 chicks on their nesting grounds in Wood
Park, Canada. These chicks were old enough to fly by mid-August
increasing their ability to escape from predators and thus,
their chances for
survival. Although five sets of twin chicks were present in August,
only 2 sets of twins arrived safely at Aransas. Whooping crane
pairs normally lay two eggs in each nest, but it is uncommon
for both of
the chicks to survive. The 33 chicks that arrived at Aransas
set another record for the species recovery.
. .Some Bad News Too
The total flock number would have been higher still had two whoopers
not been shot while migrating through Kansas in early November.
One died within a week and the second later died from respiratory
that developed from its injuries. Veterinarians at Kansas State
University had surgically repaired the wing of this crane,
with hopes that it
could survive to contribute to the captive flock. The Kansas
Department of Wildlife and Parks had flown the whooper to the
USGS Patuxent Wildlife
Research Center in Maryland. Unfortunately, the bird died
after arrival. Charges are expected to be filed against a party
crane hunters involved in the shooting.
The whooping crane story is truly a classic in endangered
species recovery. The beauty of these long-lived birds and their
peril of extinction captured the hearts of many people. It ignited
the sustained efforts of many individuals and organizations—everyone
from international governments to schoolchildren. These efforts
have made it possible for the species not only to persist, but
begin to recover against tremendous odds.
cranes are the tallest birds in North America.
only natural wild whooping crane population nests
in Wood Buffalo National
Park on the border of Alberta and the Northwest
Territories in Canada. These birds migrate 2,400 miles through
prairie states and provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan,
eastern Montana, North
South Dakota, Nebraska,
Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Whoopers winter
on the Texas Coast on and near the Aransas and Matagorda Island
about 45 miles north of Corpus Christi,
Texas. Both their summer and winter range is restricted to a 25-mile
most bird species,
whooping cranes are territorial in
both summer and winter; they will defend and chase all other whooping
cranes utilize a variety of habitats. These
include coastal and inland marshes, lakes, ponds, wet meadows,
whooping cranes in winter forage primarily for blue crabs
salt marsh habitat.
In summer they use fresh water
ponds with minnows as a favorite
the 2004-2005 winter due
to high rainfall and large
freshwater inflows into the
the previous spring and
summer. The inflows
boosted the blue crab population
and lowered marsh salinities, allowing cranes to drink
directly from the marsh.