Whooping Crane

Range Map
Grus americana

These are the tallest birds in North America, and they’ve been teetering at the edge of extinction for more than a century. Populations numbered in the tens of thousands prior to Europeans arriving in North America. By 1941, there were only 21 birds remaining, including captives in zoos. Conservation efforts have raised the 2021 population to over 800, including 138 birds in captivity. Most (506 at last count) of the birds are members of a group called the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, so named because of the locations of their annual migrations each year between Texas and Canada.

For decades following protective efforts, the wild population numbers remained low, gaining about one bird per year. Beginning in the early 2000s, the wild population began a successful rise in numbers, and in 2019 the numbers rose by 17% from the previous year. The population has a long way to go before they are safe from extinction, but we now have a population approaching estimates from the early 1870s, and researchers have reasons to feel encouraged. We may never see the flocks of 10,000 that graced the continent in pre-Columbian times, but researchers believe if we reach a population of a thousand birds, we will have achieved a golden milestone.

Like most people interested in meeting Whoopers, I visited the Gulf Coast of Texas, where most of them spend winters at Aransas NWR near Corpus Christi (Texas). While there, I enjoyed watching these stately birds foraging in the marshy plains of Blackjack Peninsula. It’s a good sign that the Whooping Cranes at Aransas NWR have expanded their winter range. I learned that for the past four or five years, a pair have spent winters at Port Aransas, and this past winter (2020~2021), for the first time, they brought with them their hatch-year juvenile. It was my good fortune to meet the trio when they briefly wandered into the fields near the parking area and boardwalk.

Captive breeding programs have helped establish three other small populations. A nonmigratory group, now living in Louisiana, has replaced a faction that used to make their homes there, but went extinct in the 1940s, after a hurricane cut the flock in half (from only 13 birds). Florida supports a small nonmigratory flock, but this group suffers from high mortality (bobcat predation) and poor breeding success. Another group learned migration by following an ultralight aircraft between Florida and Wisconsin, where they now breed, though the ultralight program is now discontinued. Captive breeding has helped with the recovery, but only in small increments. High mortality and unsuccessful natural breeding within these groups has plagued the programs, but efforts are ongoing.

Despite laws protecting these birds from hunting, jackasses with guns have gotten away with killing these birds, and authorities charged with enforcing these laws have been lenient, issuing only slap-on-the-wrist punishments to the offenders. As with most endangered and threatened species, habitat loss poses the most credible threat to survival.

Taxonomists regard the Whooping Crane as monotypic (i.e. there are no subspecies).

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