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Whoopers Return to Texas

By Jennifer Nalewicki

The annual migration of whooping cranes to Texas depends on what happens in Canada.

When the barometer drops and the late October air goes from cool to frigid in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the world’s only wild migratory whooping cranes instinctively begin their annual journey south to their winter home in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Early this summer, 61 breeding pairs of whooping cranes hatched 45 chicks in nests built among cattails and sedges at the far northern edge of the park, says Brian Johns, whooping crane coordinator for the Canadian Wildlife Service. Of those 45 chicks, fewer than half of them typically survive the cold and predators in their summer home, a vast plain of forests, bogs and shallow ponds. Sometime in mid-August, at about 60 days of age, the rust-colored survivors begin flying lessons with their attentive parents.

Once the chicks know how to fly, their odds for survival greatly increase, since they can escape predators and keep warm with their newly grown feathers. Last year, all but one of the 17 newly fledged chicks made the 2,600-mile migration, Johns says. In the year before, 15 chicks arrived safely.

Traveling in family units of two adults and one chick, the cranes fly to the rolling hills of southwestern Saskatchewan, where they linger for a week or two, roosting in wetlands and feeding on waste barley and wheat in the agricultural fields.

Their next stop is the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas, which, fortunately for the cranes and other migrating waterfowl, has had a wet year. However, highly contagious diseases such as avian cholera are common at these stopovers, since large concentrations of birds feed there at the same time. Predators are common as well.

The migration route then passes over Nebraska’s Platte River, a regular resting place for both whooping cranes and tens of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes. The two species feed in meadows and crop fields and roost in the shallow waters of the braided river before heading to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas and Salt Plains NWR in Oklahoma, two of their last stops before reaching the Aransas NWR and the islands and bays near it.

Over the years, an unofficial network of whooping crane supporters has joined forces with biologists to keep track of the cranes during migration. “Sometimes whooping cranes will stop at locations where sandhill cranes are being hunted,” Johns says. “If we receive reports that whooping cranes are sighted in the area we can put a ban on hunting in that area.”

The cranes also are in danger of potentially fatal collisions with power lines, cell phone towers and barbed-wire fences during their evening descents to rest and eat.

If all goes well, the migrating flock will grow at a rate of six to eight birds a year. But it will take at least 30 years to move the species from the endangered to the threatened list. For that to happen, biologists want to establish two more separate, self-sustaining migrating flocks of between 100 and 200 birds in Florida and on the East Coast. Previous attempts to create such flocks have failed. So a lot still depends on the one wild flock that draws birders to the Texas’ coastal bend from all over the world.

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