Whooping Crane Numbers May Pass Milestone

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AUSTIN, Texas — Wildlife biologists are eagerly watching the skies in Texas this fall, wondering if this will be the year when Texas’ whooping cranes will finally pass the 200-bird mark. Canadian biologists report that the flock left their nesting grounds last month with a record 41 chicks. If mortality is low on the 2,400-mile migration route, not only will the flock that winters on the Texas coast near Rockport set a new population record since counts began in 1938, it will also write a new chapter in the comeback story of an endangered species that once numbered only 21 birds in the world.

Texas’ winter flock of whooping cranes (the flock summers and nests in northwestern Canada in Wood Buffalo National Park) represents the last remaining “natural” flock of whooping cranes in the wild. When the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was created on the Texas coast in 1937 to conserve migratory waterfowl, it also preserved habitat for the last migratory flock of whooping cranes left on earth. A handful of non-migratory whoopers were found in a non-migratory flock in Louisiana at that time, but when the Louisiana birds died out in 1950 following a devastating hurricane, the Aransas-Wood Buffalo birds represented the last hope for the species.

Habitat protection and protection from hunting provided a slow but steady recovery for the whooping crane. With a slow growth rate and low reproduction (whooping crane pairs usually raise only one chick), the Aransas flock did not reach 50 birds until 1968. It took an addition 28 years to pass the 100 bird mark. Scientists began anticipating 200 birds after the winter of 1999-2000, when 188 birds wintered at Aransas, but reproduction on the nesting grounds was low during the next few summers. It is hoped that the record 66 chicks hatched this summer, combined with 193 birds found on the Texas coast in spring 2004 that may help the flock break the 200-bird mark in Texas this year.

Scientists attribute the record number of chicks to good habitat conditions both in Canada and on the Texas coast. Studies have shown that adequate freshwater flows in Texas rivers help to produce more blue crabs in Texas estuaries. Abundant blue crabs, one of the primary winter foods for whooping cranes, have been correlated with better nesting success for whooping cranes in the following spring.

Texas’ whooping cranes are a national treasure, and people outside Texas and Canada are likely to celebrate the 200-bird milestone as well, according to Lee Ann Linam, biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “People all over the world value whooping cranes and that brings benefit to communities and wildlife habitats in Texas. In addition, conservation of whooping cranes in Texas has helped to bring the species back in other parts of the country, because eggs collected from our flock have been used in captive breeding and reintroductions in Wisconsin and Florida.”

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 the Dallas-Fort Worth-area and southward to the wintering grounds on the central Texas 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 at more than four feet tall. They are solid white 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 5-6 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 TPWD at (800) 792-1112 x4644 or (512) 847-9480. Sightings can also be reported via e-mail to lalinam@wimberley-tx.com.* Some whooping cranes are marked with colored leg bands, and information on those bands, including which legs they are found on, would also be useful. Additional identification aids can be found on the Web.

* Correction, Oct. 25, 2004: An incorrect e-mail address in the original release has been edited. (Return to corrected item.)

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