Whooping Crane Whooping Crane

By Tom Stehn, USFWS
Tom 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 along the 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!

An Amazing Day
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 on adrenaline. 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 above 200. I hadn't believed it at first—but the population was above the 200 mark!

Good 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 Buffalo National 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.

But. . .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 problems 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 of sandhill crane hunters involved in the shooting.

Against the Odds
The whooping crane story is truly a classic in endangered species recovery. The beauty of these long-lived birds and their extreme 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.

Did You Know?
  • Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America.
  • The 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 the prairie states and provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Whoopers winter on the Texas Coast on and near the Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges about 45 miles north of Corpus Christi, Texas. Both their summer and winter range is restricted to a 25-mile radius.
  • Unlike most bird species, whooping cranes are territorial in both summer and winter; they will defend and chase all other whooping cranes out of their estimated 350-acre territories.
  • Whooping cranes utilize a variety of habitats. These include coastal and inland marshes, lakes, ponds, wet meadows, rivers, and agricultural fields.
  • Wintering whooping cranes in winter forage primarily for blue crabs in salt marsh habitat. In summer they use fresh water ponds with minnows as a favorite food. Habitat at Aransas has been excellent in the 2004-2005 winter due to high rainfall and large freshwater inflows into the bays throughout the previous spring and summer. The inflows boosted the blue crab population and lowered marsh salinities, allowing cranes to drink directly from the marsh.

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