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Whooping Crane numbers up, but concerns increase after hurricane

Whooping Cranes ©2014 May Haga
Whooping Cranes ©2014 May Haga

It has been an up-and-down year for the endangered Whooping Crane. Here’s a summary of recent news.

More chicks: At Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada, government surveys found a record 98 Whooper nests in mid-May and a record 63 fledglings in late July. The previous records were 82 nests in 2014 and 49 fledged chicks in 2006. This year’s youngsters included four sets of twins.

New population high: In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced an estimated 431 cranes — an all-time high for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population (AWBP) — inhabited the primary wintering area in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in winter 2016-17. The total is 31 percent higher than the estimate of 329 birds the previous winter. Officials attributed part of the difference to the use of a different type of airplane to conduct aerial surveys. The new plane reportedly offers a better view of the cranes.

Harvey’s impact: The AWBP birds were in Canada when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast on August 25, but questions about the habitat quality at Aransas lingered into late September. An automated game camera snapped photos hours after the storm hit showing two to three feet of saltwater covering a freshwater pond that is a popular crane watering hole. High levels of salinity could be detrimental to the returning birds. A bit of recent good news: Water wells damaged during Harvey will be repaired thanks to a $75,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The wells replenish freshwater ponds the cranes drink from.

Two fledglings in Wisconsin: After seeing 12 chicks hatch in spring in Wisconsin, officials who oversee the Eastern Migratory Population had high hopes for a better breeding outcome over previous years. By September, however, only two chicks survived to fledge. One of the two was born to a parent that itself had hatched in the wild several years earlier. It was the first second-generation wild chick in the population. Read the October 1 population summary here.


Plug pulled on Patuxent: The captive breeding of Whoopers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, which began 51 years ago, ended this fall due to federal budget cuts. The center’s flock produced many of the young cranes that were released over the last 24 years in Florida, Wisconsin, and Louisiana. Patuxent’s 75 birds will be moved to breeding facilities at the Calgary Zoo, the International Crane Foundation, and elsewhere. — Matt Mendenhall, Editor

View photos of Whooping Cranes

Human-led Whooping Crane migration halted in favor of more natural release methods


Whooping Crane: Our continent’s tallest bird

Into the wild: Our 2007 article about Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, home of the Whooping Crane project


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