Whooping Crane Population Continues To Soar

Media Contact: USFWS — Tom Stehn, (361) 286-3559; Vicki Fox, (505) 248-6455

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From U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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AUSTWELL, Texas — The tallest bird in North America has something special to “whoop” about. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge today announced the highest numbers of endangered whooping cranes are wintering in Texas in approximately the last 100 years.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator Tom Stehn completed a census flight on December 13 and accounted for 237 whooping cranes. The current population exceeds by 17 the previous high of 220 whoopers present in the fall of 2005.

The increase in numbers is due to extremely good nest production last summer. A record 62 nesting pairs fledged 49 chicks on their nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada, as reported by the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The young cranes were old enough to fly by mid-August increasing their ability to escape from predators and their survival. The record population of 237 includes a record 45 young cranes that have completed their first migration to Texas. Especially notable are seven whooping crane pairs with two chicks each. Although whooping cranes normally hatch two chicks every year, usually only one of the youngsters is able to survive.

“The presence of seven families with two chicks each is especially exciting since it surpasses the previous high of four sets that occurred way back in 1958,” said Stehn. “This is a special year for the birds.”

“The whooping crane continues to tell the story of what we can accomplish when we all work together in partnership to save a species,” said Dr. Benjamin N. Tuggle, Director of the Southwest Region of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Many people in North America first learned of the plight of the whooping crane in grade school. It is especially gratifying to lead efforts to protect the species and to be able to report that this success story is continuing!”

The population in Texas reached a low of only 15 birds in 1941, before efforts were taken to protect the species and its habitat. The population has been growing at four percent annually and reached 100 birds in 1987 and 200 birds in 2004.

However, the whooping crane population continues to face many threats, including collisions with power lines in migration, limited genetic variability in the birds themselves, loss of crane migration habitat, and winter habitat threatened with loss of productivity due to reduced fresh water inflows, chemical spills and sea level rise.

The only natural wild population of whooping cranes nest in the Northwest Territories of Canada in summer and migrate 2,400 miles to winter at the Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges and surrounding areas.

Their winter range stretches out over 35 miles of the Texas coast about 45 miles north of Corpus Christi, Texas. Wintering whooping cranes use salt marsh habitat foraging primarily for blue crabs. Unlike most other bird species, whooping cranes are territorial in both summer and winter and will defend and chase all other whooping cranes out of their estimated 350-acre territories.

Although whooping crane migration starts in mid-September and is usually completed by mid-December, it is still possible that a few additional cranes will turn up to be counted on the census flights conducted by the Service. It takes up to eight hours of flying to cover the 55,600 acres of marsh to find all the cranes.

These flights determine the size of the total population, locate crane territories, and any mortalities that may occur. “Finding every whooping crane is quite a challenge. We have thousands of other white birds in the marsh including pelicans and egrets that makes aerial spotting of cranes more difficult. Also, the cranes can move during a census flight and either not be counted or else be counted twice,” said Stehn.

Private pilot Dr. Tom Taylor, 74 of Rockport, Texas came out of retirement to conduct the flight and helped make the record count. Dr Taylor’s experience conducting the crane flights for the past 12 years with the Service was a huge help in finding all the cranes.

If a disease outbreak or other disaster should occur affecting the Texas flock, a contingency plan to reintroduce two additional flocks into the wild is in place. Since 1993, captive bred whooping cranes have been released annually in central Florida.

Today, that non-migratory flock numbers approximately 53 birds. During the past few years, these cranes have demonstrated their maturity by nesting and producing chicks on their own.

A migratory flock was established using an ultra light aircraft to teach the whooping cranes a migration route between Wisconsin and Florida. This migratory flock now numbers 83, with the first two chicks from that flock fledged in the wild in 2006 at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.

These cranes fly solo after being led on their initial trip across the eastern U.S. behind the ultralight. Operation Migration is leading 18 juvenile whooping cranes in their first flight between Wisconsin and Florida and they are expected to complete the journey before Christmas. The team of pilots and biologists assigned this task make up the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

The current total North American population of wild and captive whooping cranes is 518. Although the whooping crane population remains endangered, the comeback of the species sets a standard for conservation efforts in North America.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies. Visit the Service’s website at http://www.fws.gov.