Wild Thing: Great White Bird
Majestic whooping cranes were nearly lost but have made a comeback here.
By Lee Ann Johnson Linam
When my family moved to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 1973 (my dad was refuge manager), nestled among the live oaks and swarming mosquitoes was a tiny visitors center with a stuffed whooping crane, some photos and refuge artifacts, and a dark corner with a slideshow about whooping cranes. Though the tape recording and 35mm slides were primitive by today’s standards, the haunting recording of whooping crane calls and the opening line of the narration still resonate in my memory: “The story of the whooping crane has been described as a love affair between a great white bird and two nations who have traditionally cherished the underdog.”
Whooping crane on the Texas coast.
Over the last half-century or more, these great white birds and their story have captured the imagination of Texans and of wildlife lovers throughout the world. Whooping cranes, named for that haunting bugling call, are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly 5 feet tall. They are majestic in flight, with long necks and legs extended and with the black tips of their wings reaching a span of more than 7 feet.
Perhaps more than anything, their courtship behavior has contributed to their mystique. Cranes generally mate for life and raise their chicks together. They cement their pair bonds with dances, displays and calls that have earned them a place in mythology and legend in many cultures.
Whooping cranes almost disappeared before we knew we loved them. When Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was purchased in 1937, there were only a few dozen whooping cranes left in the world. In the early ’40s, the migratory population that wintered at Aransas and nested at (then unknown) Wood Buffalo National Park in northwest Canada dropped to only 16 birds.
The recovery process has been slow, due in part to the fact that these long-lived birds usually rear only one chick per year. Though wildlife professionals took action to protect whooping cranes from being shot and to protect and manage the coastal wetland habitats that provide their food and roosting sites, there were still only 49 whoopers left in the last flock in the wild when my family arrived at Aransas in 1973.
More recently, protection for whooping cranes and habitat has begun to pay off more steadily — by 1986, the winter counts in Texas had reached 100 birds, and the population surpassed 200 in 2004. Today, officials estimate that about 300 birds are in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, leading many people to describe the story of the whooping crane as one of the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success stories.
Still, challenges remain for the magnificent underdog. Various experiments to establish additional whooping crane populations in other parts of the country have thus far failed to produce self-sustaining populations. Even keeping track of whooping cranes has become more challenging, as an expanding population has begun to use wintering habitats farther away from Aransas. Three whooping crane families even wintered in Central Texas in 2011–12.
Despite the challenges, our love affair won’t let us give up on whooping cranes. The City of Rockport estimates that whooping crane tourism brings in millions of dollars to the local economy annually. In fact, citizen interest prompted TPWD to create a Texas Whooper Watch program this year to track the cranes (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/whoopingcranes). Become a citizen scientist there, or just learn more about whoopers.
Forty years later, the closing line of that primitive slideshow in the darkened corner of the Aransas visitors center still rings true: “Slowly, very slowly, the number of whooping cranes climbs upward. Their story is truly an adventure in survival.”
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