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Whooper Boosters Hope For A Better Winter
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas’ most famous endangered bird is on its way back to its winter home, and supporters everywhere are hoping it’s a better year for the whooping crane. Federal biologists report that whooping cranes have begun their fall migration from Canada, with arrivals on the central Texas coast anticipated within the next couple of weeks.
Texas’ winter flock of whooping cranes represents the last remaining "natural" flock of whooping cranes in the wild. The birds summer and nest in northwestern Canada in Wood Buffalo National Park, but spend winters in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
Once numbering only 21 birds on earth, the species reached a population high last winter of 270. However, the flock experienced higher-than-average mortality last year, as 23 cranes died over the course of the winter. Refuge biologists attributed the high mortality to lower food and freshwater availability associated with the severe drought of the last two years. Canadian biologists report that reproduction on the nesting grounds was also lower than usual this summer, and, with only 22 chicks sighted in August, it is unlikely the species will reach a new high this year.
Such "slowdowns" in the recovery of the species are not unprecedented, according to Lee Ann Linam, at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist.
"Over the course of the whooping crane’s long, steady recovery, we have seen a dip in population numbers every 10-12 years," Linam said. "The important thing is whether we continue to provide high quality habitat for the species to begin its growth in population again."
Linam reports that the last drop in population occurred in 2000-01, when the flock dropped from 180 to 176. However, 2008-09 was unusual in the amount of mortality that occurred on the wintering grounds. The majority of losses usually occur during migration.
Because of the importance of the migration period, Texas citizens are asked to be on the watch for whooping cranes migrating through the state. The cranes usually pass through a migration corridor in Texas that extends from the Texas panhandle eastward to Dallas-Fort Worth and southward to the wintering grounds on the central coast. The majority of the cranes pass through Texas from late October through the end of November.
Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing over four feet tall. They are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched. During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. They nearly always migrate in small groups of less than 4-5 birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane.
Whooping cranes are protected by federal and state endangered species laws, and Texans can help safeguard this national treasure by helping to prevent harm or harassment to whooping cranes. Anyone sighting a whooping crane is asked to report it to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112, extension 4644 or (512) 847-9480. Sightings can also be reported via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional aids to help people identify whooping cranes can be found on the TPWD whooping crane Web page and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service migratory bird Web page. Information about nature tourism opportunities to view wintering whooping cranes can be obtained from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Web site or the Rockport Chamber of Commerce Web site.
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