Saving North America’s Tallest Bird

Saving North America’s Tallest Bird

Whooping crane recovery is one of conservation's great successes, but suddenly there are new and frightening threats.

By Ted Williams
Published: July-August 2013

On the cold, misty morning of February 12, 2013, Iliana Pena, conservation director for Audubon Texas, and I are trying to feel good about the future of whooping cranes. In Captain Tommy Moore's metal birding boat, Skimmer, we are cruising the Intracoastal Waterway inches from the western shore of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. With us is Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the refuge, thereby protecting the 47,200-acre Blackjack Peninsula between Aransas and San Antonio bays. Since then it's grown to 115,000 acres and been named a Globally Important Bird Area. Today the refuge helps sustain somewhere between 178 and 362 whooping cranes, up from 15 in 1941. The Fish and Wildlife Service thinks the number is probably around 257 but can't say for sure because it has come up with a controversial new system of estimating rather than counting. These birds migrate from breeding grounds in northern Canada to wintering habitat here in south Texas.

George Archibald & Gee Whiz. W2
Photograph by the International Crane Foundation
Following this piece on whooping cranes in the May-June issue, a loyal reader registered disappointment that I hadn't mentioned the tremendous contributions of George Archibald and the International Crane Foundation in establishing the captive-reared flock that now migrates between Wisconsin and Florida (see "The Man Who Saves Cranes,"). So I'll take this opportunity to credit Archibald and the foundation for their heroic work. And special thanks to the foundation for being part of the successful lawsuit that has given the wild population a fighting chance by protecting the vital freshwater inflow to their winter habitat. T.W.
A second population of about 100 whoopers, started with captive-reared birds fed by volunteers and aviculturists in crane costumes and imprinted to follow ultralight aircraft, migrates between Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin and Chassahowitzha and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges on Florida's west coast. They're doing well in the wild but reproduction is low. A non-migratory flock established at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in south-central Florida seems to have failed, but another of about two dozen in southwest Louisiana shows great promise.

During the past 70 or so years the naturally migrating population has increased at an average of 4.5 percent annually. Still, Pena and I have a bad feeling about the onslaught of new threats in Texas--climate change that is flooding salt marshes and bringing habitat-wrecking black mangroves up from the south, and coastal development, drought, and water withdrawals from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers that have raised salinity in bays and estuaries, thereby killing the blue crabs and other invertebrates that sustain the cranes. A recent federal court decision may have resolved the water-withdrawal issue, but persistent drought, possibly related to climate change, remains a concern.


Even on dark days, birders have to work to sustain dark moods in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Opening the show for us and eliciting smiles from all hands are reddish egrets dashing around the marsh, hopping and changing direction like Keystone Kops. A seaside sparrow carols from his spartina perch. Great blue herons in astonishing profusion hunch, puff, and preen. Ospreys hover and perch on buoys. Great and snowy egrets stalk salt ponds and scull overhead. White pelicans in tight clusters roost on sandbars. Brown pelicans fold their wings and dive. A northern harrier wobbles low over the marsh. Patrolling the wet flats are dunlins, marbled godwits, willets, long-billed curlews, dowitchers, oystercatchers, avocets, greater yellowlegs. A white-tailed hawk amiably shares a roost with seven great blue herons. Bottlenosed dolphins roll in our wake and bow wave. Are we really getting paid for this? Pena and I ask ourselves.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Sandhill Cranes in Florida

I question the statement that Whooping Cranes are North America's tallest birds at 5 feet. As Sandhills have become more common throughout Florida neighborhoods (they have sure learned to adapt to lost environment!), I have noticed several that clearly exceed five feet in height in my neighborhood. While I realize that these examples may be oddities among Sandhills, has anyone else noticed that as Sandhills have become more common they have also seemed to increase in height steadily over the last thirty years. This is a bird that has really adapted well to lost environment. I have two mated pairs, one in my neighborhood and another next to my office, that return each year to nest and raise their young (usually one to two chicks survive annually and some years we've had up to three survive). Man-made storm water retention ponds seem to be their preference and the fact that we have professional trappers remove nuisance alligators seems to be much appreciated by our Sandhills.

The Alberta Provincial

The Alberta Provincial government is issuing permits to Tar sands oil companies for operations throughout the Wood Buffalo area threatening the Cranes' breeding habitat.

Whopping cranes

Have always wanted to go to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge - so your article has inspired a trip this coming winter. That article had the most beautiful description of birds and excellent history of the ongoing difficulties in past and present environmental habitat protection, We should all take heed - as the earth is under tremendous stress - what affects the birds affects all.
Thank you for this article. Donna Z. and Ken B. from Alberta.


My parents wintered in Texas for 15 years...from Minnesota...and one of their favorite places was the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. My kids and I would go down over Christmas break(I was a teacher) and explored that area multi times. It's definitely worth a visit. I hope the Whoopers survive all the stresses. Magnificent birds.

Any life form that has to

Any life form that has to depend on the government in Texas for survival is in big trouble.

Ted Williams

Just love birders who write this well!

Whooping cranes

So interesting to read articles like this. Hopefully enough people will appreciate the wildlife enough to do something for the cranes. They have come so far in the years since 1940s....keep it going. Marjorie Ewell, Cape Coral Florida

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