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

The growing human population of south Texas requires freshwater. But it requires other resources, too, and if you salt up bays and marshes, you lose these resources. Without natural freshwater inflow the crab industry crashes, the oyster industry crashes, the shrimp industry crashes, the recreational fishing industry crashes, and the birding-tourism industry crashes. Then the real estate industry crashes, because all these resources bring people to south Texas. There are ways of conserving freshwater and even rendering it from seawater. But there is no way of maintaining native estuarine and saltmarsh ecosystems in high-saline conditions over the long term.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the same outfit that had been degrading the native ecosystem that supports humans and whooping cranes in Aransas and San Antonio bays, reports that similar water withdrawals have destroyed the economic and ecological viability of Nueces Bay, near Corpus Christi. This once-rich estuary now produces far fewer oysters, crabs, and shrimp.

When it hasn't been corrupted by gross freshwater diversions, San Antonio Bay, which contains the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, annually has fed the local economy with $1 million from crabbing, $6 million from recreational fishing, $17 million from oystering, and $30 million from shrimping. And that doesn't take into account the living resources in Aransas Bay or trade in fuel, food, and equipment.

"Texas has a water system based in the 1900s," declares Blackburn. "And we're dealing with 21st-century problems." That system has been killing cranes. But if the recent court victory by the Aransas Project and its allies survives appeal, at least the Guadalupe- San Antonio River system will be dragged into the 21st century. So the whooping crane's future is suddenly brighter.

Unfortunately, however, the 21st-century problems aren't confined to the wintering grounds. Migrating whoopers stop near or in tar sands strip mines and tailing ponds, and lately they've been showing up with feathers fouled by black material. While the contaminant has yet to be positively identified, tar sands waste is the prime suspect. And rapidly proliferating wind-turbine projects along the cranes' migration route threaten flying birds and, worse, destroy stopover habitat.

So the message for the nation's bird lovers, local shrimpers, fishermen, and coastal residents is this: Rejoice briefly at a major win, then focus on the future. Start advocating everywhere for intelligent water management and whooping cranes, and start planning a winter trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.


Learn more: Google "Texas Whooper Watch" and learn how you can help managers increase their knowledge of crane behavior and identify migration stopover sites, nontraditional wintering areas, and new threats. For the latest information, go to and
Take action: Learn more about the Aransas Project and how you can get involved on behalf of whoopers at
Get inspired: The best way to save whoopers is to go see them in the wild. To observe them in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, contact Captain Tommy Moore's Birding and Kayak Adventures in Rockport, Texas, at 361-727-0643.

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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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