This past February, I crossed two related but distinct items off my bucket list. I attended the Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas, Texas, an event I had wanted to take part in for years. And I saw truly wild Whooping Cranes for the first time — four white adults and one tawny-headed juvenile.
I’d bet a dollar that, if you’re a birder, these experiences are on your bucket list, too. The 23-year-old festival features a great lineup of speakers, including George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation, excellent birding tours, and a lively vendor area. And when you live in Wisconsin, like I do, it’s a no-brainer to want to spend a few days in winter on the Texas coast.
Whether you have seen 30 species of birds or 3,000, when you can add the Whooping Crane to your life list, you should savor the moment. Because, of course, it’s not simply one more bird. It’s a species that was driven up to the cliff of extinction just eight decades ago, when its population was in the low 20s — including just four breeding females — and has been pulled back from the brink thanks to the dedication of conservations, government biologists, zoos, pilots, and many others.
It’s a species whose breeding grounds, in the vast Wood Buffalo National Park in far northern Canada, were not discovered until 1954.
And it’s a species that has captured the public’s imagination like few other North American birds. Even without its up-and-down recovery story, the Whooper demands attention — it stands nearly 5 feet tall (making it the tallest bird in North America), is all white with black primaries and a red crown, and makes an unforgettable ker-loocall over the marshes it inhabits.
Overall, the crane’s prospects have been on the upswing in recent years, especially as the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population grew in 2018 to a record 505 birds. But as I learned at the festival, the future for Whooping Cranes is cloudy at best.
Before we look ahead, let’s review the crane’s story.
Overhunting and habitat loss reduced the crane’s numbers from an estimated 10,000 before European settlement of North America to about 1,300 by 1870. The trend continued into the 1930s, when the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock declined to just 15 birds. A hurricane wiped out many birds from a nearby Louisiana flock, leaving only 21 wild and two captive cranes in the world in 1941.
Recovery was quite slow for the next 30 years, but public awareness of the species grew as more people learned about it. In 1967, the crane was one of the original 75 species listed as Endangered in the U.S., a status it retains to this day.