The Whooping Cranes of Aransas: a Survival Story

To watch whooping cranes methodically pluck blue crabs from a salt marsh along the Texas Gulf coast with their long beaks is to stand close enough to the precipice of extinction that you could almost throw a rock into the void. The continuing plight of these supremely elegant, brilliantly white birds—the tallest in North America—offers an amazing tale of nature and society in tangled collision. Extraordinary efforts have so far saved them from ourselves, and if we continue to succeed in pulling this one off, we’ll really have something to celebrate.

By 1941, the entire species, whose population may have once numbered as high as 10,000, was reduced to an all-time low of 16 individuals, primarily due to habitat loss and hunting. The surviving birds included four females who funneled the species’ genetic stock to the 500-plus whoopers alive today, as a whole still the most endangered of the world’s 15 species of cranes. This lonely little flock migrated between summer nesting territory in Wood Buffalo National Park in far northern Canada (the exact location a mystery for decades) and their wintering grounds along the Intracoastal Waterway at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Today, folks come to Aransas NWR from far and wide each winter to see the birds in their natural habitat. I made the trip last week, on a hiatus from my travels in the eastern Gulf, for the annual Whooping Crane Festival based in Port Aransas. I came to see some of the 281 whoopers spending the winter there, and to begin making plans and gathering images for a new whooping crane educational multimedia program.

Click here for a waterfowl and whooping crane photo gallery
from Port Aransas and the Aransas NWR.

The whooping crane has been pulled back from the brink through a determined and complex series of trial-and-error experiments in biology, ecology, land-use management, inter-species bonding, and the use of ultralight airplanes masquerading as migrating whoopers. The latter strategy, used successfully to reintroduce flocks of captive-raised whoopers in the eastern U.S. to a historic migratory route between Wisconsin and Florida, has received quite a bit of media attention. So did pioneering efforts by George Archibald, co-founder of Baraboo Wisconsin’s International Crane Foundation, to bond with a whooper named Tex so that she might become the first captive female to successfully reproduce.

A captive whooping crane at the International Crane Foundation

Archibald spent nearly three years in close daily proximity with Tex. He learned the steps of the whooping crane courting dance, performed his part when the time was right, and, with the help of artificial insemination, Tex was eventually wooed into fertility.  The night before Archibald was scheduled to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1982 to tell his remarkable tale, Tex was killed by a racoon that got into her cage. Public support for the whoopers’ cause sharply increased when Archibald shared his poignant story with the viewing audience.

From the decks of the whooping crane tour boat we saw about 30 whoopers altogether, going about their business hunting for the main staple of their diet—blue crabs—and paying no attention to us or the occasional barge chugging along no more than 20 yards away.  At one point 18 whoopers came into view, and our seasoned naturalist guide declared excitedly that he’d “never seen so many whooping cranes in one place in his life!”

The biggest threat to the whoopers at Aransas is an exact parallel to the situation facing the oysters of Apalachicola Bay: insufficient fresh water entering the estuary. Reduced freshwater flows due primarily to upstream human consumption diminishes the crab population, especially during drought years. Whoopers who don’t get enough nutritious crab to eat are less healthy for their long spring migration northward and less likely to reproduce.

Our guide shared another concern that worried him: many of the barges that cruise through the cranes’ wintering grounds on a narrow Intracoastal Waterway channel carry petrochemicals. A bad spill at the wrong time and place could be disastrous. Also, projected sea-level rise due to climate change poses a threat to the coastal wetlands that the whoopers occupy each winter.

There are many more parts of the whooper’s story worth hearing. For now, I’ll close with the irony that their extreme rarity coincides with the burgeoning population of North America’s other crane species, the sandhill crane. Sandhills, which have been used as surrogate parents in efforts to bring back the whooper, are the world’s most populous cranes. You can see astounding numbers of them each spring along a 60-mile stretch of the North Platte River in central Nebraska—where the occasional whooper can also be spotted—in one of the world’s great migration spectacles. Here’s a short video made from two visits to the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska, celebrating that unequalled event:

On March 11 I’ll be headed to the Mississippi River delta for the next phase of the 3rd Coast Connect adventure. One event I will be looking forward to is the planned release of a new flock of whooping cranes at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area west of New Orleans. These birds will be reclaiming habitat where a non-migratory flock of Louisiana whoopers once made their home. Hunting and other human encroachments on their territory dwindled their numbers to the point that a hurricane wiped out the last of them in the 1950s. It will be good to have them back.

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