Texas: Whooping Cranes Returning For the Winter

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported last week that biologist have counted 199 adult and 38 juvenile cranes making the total of 237 made their way from their breeding grounds in the Buffalo National Reserve to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas. Crane specialist Vicki Muller said "food for the cranes is plentiful, with crabs and wolfberries , plus their is an abundance of drinking water." She also said the migration which started in October, is nearing completion. There were according to experts 263 birds were in the flock that migrated north last spring. Biologist expect that when the final count is done there will be 285 cranes that will arrive. For more on whooping cranes see: Bird Watching For You.

Whooping Crane
Photo: Whooping Crane, Grus americana.
Whooping Crane, Grus americana

Where are they found? North America
Map of the world.

Towering 1.5 m (5 ft) above the ground, a Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America. It is equally impressive in flight: the wings span 2 m (6.5 ft.), black primary feathers sharply contrast against its snow-white plumage, and its long legs trail behind.
Red on the crown and lower cheek, and a large bustle (curved plumes that hang down over the tail) are also distinctive. Apart from being larger and heavier (7.3 kg versus 6.4 kg; 16 vs. 14 lb.), male cranes are similar to females. Whooping Cranes are long-lived; some captive birds have reached 40 years of age.
Whooping Cranes are named for their loud, single-note calls, which are greatly amplified by a coiled trachea that stretches 150 cm (nearly five feet). These calls are given when a crane is frightened and during aggressive interactions (these are known as guard calls), or during courtship (unison calls). Courtship is a visual extravaganza replete with wing flaps, head throws, and spectacular meter-high (3 ft.) leaps.
Whooping Cranes are omnivores and their diet includes berries, grains, insects, snails, minnows, frogs, snakes, mice and voles. On the wintering grounds, they eat mainly crabs and clams. Cranes nest on mounds in shallow wetlands, and their two eggs take up to 35 days to hatch.
In the mid 1800s, the Whooping Crane population was estimated at approximately 1400, and by 1970, the species was one of the rarest in the world. After years of bordering on the fringe of extinction, the Whooping Crane population is growing, largely because of protection, and captive breeding and release programs.
In 2008 there were 146 Whooping Cranes in captivity and 377 wild birds in three distinct populations. Of these wild populations, the largest and only self-sustaining one consists of 266 birds that nest in Wood Buffalo National Park and winter along the Gulf Coast in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge area. A second wild population is a re-introduced Florida population that contains 37 birds. The third is the Eastern Migratory Population; it was established in 2001, and totals 74 birds.
Because migration in cranes is a learned behavior, the Eastern Migratory group was led from release sites in Wisconsin to wintering sites in Florida by ultra-light planes flown by biologists dressed as cranes.

From the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Photo by Earl Nottingham, Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife
Photo by Earl Nottingham, Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife
Things are looking up for the endangered whooping crane.
The bird made news two years ago when a record number of crane deaths were reported during drought conditions on the Texas coast. Now, according to state and federal biologists, flock numbers have rebounded.
A new record high number of cranes should start arriving on the Texas coast in late October.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn, 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.
With 46 chicks fledging from a record 74 nests in August 2010, the flock size should reach record levels this fall -around 290.
Once numbering only 21 birds on earth, the previous population high was 270 in the fall of 2009.
Texas' winter flock of whooping cranes (the birds summer and nest in northwestern Canada in Wood Buffalo National Park) represents the last remaining "natural" flock of whooping cranes in the wild, and, according to Lee Ann Linam, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist, Texas plays an important role it 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."
Whooping cranes winter in wetlands along a section of the Texas coast ranging from approximately Seadrift to Rockport, including at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Linam notes that public and private landowners within the region are collaborating in habitat management efforts for whooping cranes, but potential threats still exist, such as oil spills, coastal development, and reduced freshwater inflows.
Texas also plays an important role in conserving whooping cranes as they migrate through the state.
The cranes usually pass through a migration corridor that extends from the Texas Panhandle eastward to Dallas-Fort Worth and southward to the central coast wintering grounds. Their flight path would take them over cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin and Victoria. The majority of the cranes pass south through Texas from late October through the end of November.
Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing over four feet tall.
They are solid white in color except for black wing-tips visible only in flight. 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 smaller sandhill cranes. Hunters are advised to learn to tell the difference between whooping cranes and sandhill cranes, a popular game bird.
Whooping cranes are protected by federal and state endangered species laws.
--From the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department