Whoopers Crane Their Necks toward Texas

Whooping cranes migrate more than 2,400 miles a year. (Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service)

Things are looking up for the endangered whooping crane. The bird made news three years ago when a record number of crane deaths were reported during drought conditions on the Texas Gulf Coast. But according to state and federal biologists, flock numbers have rebounded, and a new record high number of cranes should start arriving on the Texas coast later this month, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) news release (October 26).

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes rebounded to 264 in the winter of 2009-10, back from 247 at the end of the 2008-09 winter, reported U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn. With 46 chicks fledging from a record 74 nests in August 2010 the flock size should reach record levels this fall—expected to be somewhere around 290. Once numbering only 21 birds on earth, the previous population high was 270 in the fall of 2009.

Migration Is In Full Swing
Northerly winds accompanying a Canadian cold front the week of October 17 moved whooping cranes south from their summer nesting area in northwestern Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park toward their wintering grounds on the salt flats and marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Whooping cranes commence their fall migration south to Texas in mid-September and begin the spring migration north to Canada in late March or early April. Whooping cranes migrate more than 2,400 miles a year.

Records indicate that the majority of cranes pass through Kansas between October 17 and November 10 and south through Texas from late October through the end of November.

Whooping cranes mate for life. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

As of October 19, two cranes were sighted as far south as northern Texas.

Additionally, there was a single whooper observed at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, near Stafford in central Kansas, the same evening, reports Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) in a news release (October 27).

The cranes usually pass through a migration corridor that extends through Kansas, the Texas Panhandle, eastward to Dallas-Fort Worth, and southward to their central Gulf Coast wintering grounds. Their flight path takes them over such Texas cities as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria.

This flock of whooping cranes represents the last remaining “natural” flock in the wild, and, according to Lee Ann Linam, TPWD biologist, Texas plays an important role in the species’ future recovery.

“Under good conditions, Texas’ coastal wetlands provide a variety and abundance of food and fresh water that normally lead to excellent survival of whoopers over the winter,” Linam said. “Such excellent winter survival has greatly aided the species’ amazing comeback.”

Sighting a whooper is a special experience for both casual and avid bird watchers.
Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They have a wingspan of 7.5 feet. Whooping cranes are white with rust-colored patches on top and back of head, lack feathers on both sides of the head, yellow eyes, and long, black legs and bills. Their primary wing feathers are black but are visible only in flight.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They have a wingspan of 7.5 feet. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

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 four-to-five birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill cranes.

Whooping cranes are protected by federal and state endangered species laws.

Whooping cranes mate for life, but will accept a new mate if one dies. They can live up to 24 years in the wild. The mated pair shares brooding duties; either the male or the female is always on the nest. Generally, one chick survives. It can leave the nest while quite young, but is still protected and fed by its parents. Chicks are rust-colored when they hatch; at about four months, chicks’ feathers begin turning white. By the end of their first migration, they are brown and white, and as they enter their first spring, their plumage is white with black wing tips.

Worth Pondering…
In the end, we only conserve what we love.

We only love what we understand.

We will understand what we are taught.

—Baba Dioum, Sengalese poet

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