This year’s Whooping Crane Festival kicks off tomorrow in Port Aransas, Texas. Attendees will take boat tours to see cranes, go birding at Fennessey Ranch and other hotspots, and hear from great speakers, including Rob Kent, superintendent of Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, where the cranes nest, and renowned conservationist George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation.
The festivities are just another example of the intense interest in Whooping Crane, the world’s most endangered species of crane. Last year, our readers voted it one of the birds they want to see most. Two years ago, an excellent biography of Robert Porter Allen, one of the unsung heroes of Whooping Crane conservation, was published. In January, NBC News broadcast a story about the birds and the people working to re-introduce them to the eastern states. And this spring, birders (maybe even you!) will have a special opportunity to see Whoopers and Kirtland’s Warblers in central Wisconsin.
Tragically, poachers continue to shoot cranes. At least 16 birds have been killed by gunfire in recent years. The latest shootings in Kentucky and Louisiana prompted ICF to call for strict penalties for the perpetrators.
“We – a united front of concerned citizens, federal and state governments, and nonprofit organizations – have brought Whooping Cranes back from the brink of extinction,” the non-profit said. “But now that Whooping Cranes are back on our lands, it is up to us, the citizens of the United States, to keep them safe. They are a national treasure, part of our living legacy, and we should not tolerate having them destroyed by vandals in our communities.”
Here are 10 things you may not know about this national treasure:
Although we think of Whooping Cranes today as birds of marshes, historically they were found on North American grasslands.
Their breeding range extended from central Illinois and Iowa into Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
An isolated breeding population also existed in southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas, and it likely wasn’t the only one. Prior to the 1860s, birds were reported near the western shore of Hudson Bay, on the Bear River in Idaho, and near Ocean City, New Jersey.
In winter, Whoopers occupied two regions: the intermountain grasslands of central Mexico and the Gulf Coast from northeastern Mexico to Alabama.
Despite its vast range, the crane’s total population in the mid-1800s is believed to have been no more than 1,300-1,400 birds.
Within a century, settlers plowed and drained the bird’s habitat and shot more than 250 cranes. By 1941, only 16 birds returned to winter on the Texas coast.
Scientists have known the crane’s migration route since 1954, when the Canadian breeding grounds were discovered. In the last couple years, a tracking project using solar-powered GPS transmitters has revealed details about timing, stopover sites, and migratory behavior. The ongoing study aims to inform conservation decisions along the migratory corridor.
For more than 60 years, the flock wintering at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was counted in an annual census, which, over time, showed steady growth; by the winter of 2010-11, the census tallied a record 282 Whoopers.
The following year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service switched to a survey method known as distance sampling; rather than counting every bird, it aims to count most cranes and produces an approximate total. In 2012-13, officials estimated the Texas population at 273 cranes, but the number may have been as low as 250 or as high as 301.
In the two years since 282 cranes were counted, the population may have risen by almost 7 percent or it may have dropped by 3 percent or an astonishing 11 percent. “This degree of uncertainty is simply unacceptable and useless for recovery management purposes,” says Tom Stehn, retired Whooping Crane coordinator of the Fish and Wildlife Service. In late 2013, the uncertainty prompted the International Crane Foundation to start its own count of Whooping Cranes in Texas.
About Whooping Crane
Five feet tall. Bright white with red crown and red and black facial skin. Black wing tips obvious in flight. Juvenile mostly reddish brown. (ABA Code 2)
Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta and Northwest Territories. Aransas NWR, Texas. Reintroduced flocks in Wisconsin, Florida, and Louisiana.
Wild: approximately 273 in the flock that migrates between Texas and northern Canada. Reintroduced flocks: 106 in the eastern migratory population, 28 non-migratory cranes in southern Louisiana, and 20 non-migratory birds in central Florida. Captive: 183. Total: About 610. Endangered.