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The Comeback Crane

The passing of the 200-bird milestone makes biologists whoop for joy.

By Elaine Robbins

Today, there are 15,589 species threatened with extinction, so the job of tracking endangered species is often pretty grim business. But this season brought news worth whooping about: The world’s last natural wild flock of whooping cranes, which winters on the Texas coast, passed the 200-bird milestone. That’s good news indeed for one of the most endangered species on Earth — one that numbered just 15 birds in 1941.

The cranes starting arriving at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in late October after completing a 2,400-mile migration from their summer nesting grounds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. This year, a record 33 juveniles — including two sets of twins — successfully made the trip to Texas. Not all of the cranes were so lucky. One chick was separated from its parents and was last sighted in northeastern Colorado. Two adults were shot by hunters in Kansas.

The good news came on the day before Thanksgiving, when Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, took his weekly aerial census of the 35-mile stretch of saltwater marshes and islands where the whoopers have established territories. It was a sunny morning with gusts of up to 26 mph as pilot Tom Taylor flew the Cessna 172 in careful patterns over Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Watching for their telltale slow wingbeat of white wings with black tips, Stehn plotted crane locations on aerial photographs. More than 7 hours later, on the flight back to Rockport, Stehn tallied the numbers from his 10 sectional maps.

“I got 213,” he says. “I figured I had added wrong by carrying an extra ‘1.’ I’d only gotten about 1 1/2 hours’ sleep the night before, so I decided to recheck my math.” When he got 213 again, he stared dumbfounded at the total. Slowly it dawned on him that this was the moment biologists had been waiting for. “The results of today’s flight are the most satisfying experience I have ever had in my career with U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” he wrote in a Thanksgiving Day e-mail to announce the news.

“We had anticipated for several years that we might be able to hit that 200-bird mark,” says Lee Ann Johnson Linam, biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But to far surpass it is really wonderful news.” Linam should know. Her father, Frank Johnson, managed Aransas National Wildlife Refuge when she was a little girl and helped the population reach the 100-bird mark in 1986.

The victory is the result of six decades of conservation efforts. Habitat protection, wetland restoration, and protection from hunting have all helped the whooping crane recover. The nearly 5-foot-tall cranes — the tallest birds in North America, with a wingspan wider than most cars — still face many threats, from collisions with power lines to shooting by inexperienced hunters, who mistake them for sandhill cranes. To survive, they will need healthy wetlands fed by sufficient instream flow. “We need to have enough fresh water reach the bays and estuaries for them to be productive,” says Linam. “The primary food of the whooping crane is the blue crab.”

In mid-March the flock will depart for Canada for what biologists hope will be another year of good chick production. Before leaving, they’ll perform a spring courtship display characterized by wing flapping, leaps in the air, and duets of the loud whooping call for which they are named. By all accounts, this year they have something to whoop about.

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