Whooping Crane

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. Having populations numbering in the tens of thousands prior to European immigration in North America, in 1941 there were only 21 birds, including captives in zoos. Conservation efforts have raised the population to over 500. Most 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 those of 1870s estimates, 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 the majority 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.

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 13 birds). Florida supports a small nonmigratory flock, but this group suffers from high mortality (bobcat predation) and poor breeding success. Another group that learned migration by following an ultralight aircraft between Florida and Wisconsin (now discontinued), where they breed. 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.

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