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Whooping Cranes

Because of its endangered status, the whooping crane has always been high on my bucket list. To see the migration into South Texas

we arranged a cruise on the Skimmer out of Rockport, TX.

The whooping crane (Grus americana), the tallest North American bird, is an endangered crane species named for its whooping sound. In 2003, there were about 153 pairs of whooping cranes. Along with the sandhill crane, it is one of only two crane species found in North America. The whooping crane's lifespan is estimated to be 22 to 24 years in the wild. After being pushed to the brink of extinction by unregulated hunting and loss of habitat to just 21 wild and two captive whooping cranes by 1941, conservation efforts have led to a limited recovery. As of February 2015, the total population was 603 including 161 captive birds.

An adult whooping crane is white with a red crown and a long, dark, pointed bill. Immature whooping cranes are cinnamon brown. While in flight, their long necks are kept straight and their long dark legs trail behind. Adult whooping cranes' black wing tips are visible during flight.

Their calls are loud and can carry several kilometers. They express "guard calls", apparently to warn their partner about any potential danger. The crane pair will jointly call rhythmically ("unison call") after waking in the early morning, after courtship and when defending their territory. The first unison call ever recorded in the wild was taken in the whooping cranes' wintering area of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge during December 1999 and is documented here

Breeding populations winter along the Gulf coast of Texas, United States, near
Rockport on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and along Sunset Lake in Portland, Matagorda Island, Isla San Jose, and portions of the Lamar Peninsula and Welder Point, which is on the east side of San Antonio Bay. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma is a major migratory stopover for the crane population hosting over 75% of the species annually.

The whooping crane is endangered mainly as a result of habitat loss, although whoopers are also still illegally shot despite this being subject to substantial financial penalties and possible prison time.

At one time, the range for these birds extended throughout midwestern North America. In 1941, the wild population consisted of 21 birds. Conservation efforts have led to a population increase; as of July 2010 there were about 383 whooping cranes living in the wild, and another 152 living in captivity. The whooping crane is still
one of the rarest birds in North America. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that 266 whooping cranes made the migration to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 2007.

Six studies from 1946 to 2005 have reported that blue crabs are a significant food source for whooping cranes wintering at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, constituting up to 90 percent of their energy intake in two winters; 1992–93 and 1993-94.

Waste grain, including wheat, barley, and corn, is an important food for migrating whooping cranes, but whooping cranes don't swallow gizzard stones and digest grains less efficiently than sandhill cranes.

Young whooping cranes completing their first migration, from Wisconsin to Florida, in January 2009, following an ultralight aircraft. This procedure is carried out by Operation Migration. In the early 1960s, Robert Porter Allen, an ornithologist with the National Audubon Society, appeared as a guest challenger on the network television show "To Tell The Truth", which gave the Conservation movement some opportunity to update the public on their efforts to save the whooping crane from extinction. The whooping crane was declared endangered in 1967. Although believed to be naturally rare, the crane has suffered major population deprivations due to habitat destruction and over-hunting. The population has gone from an estimated 10,000+ birds before the settling of Europeans on the continent to 1,300-1,400 birds by 1870 to 15 adults by 1938.

In 1976, ornithologist George W. Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, began working with Tex, a female whooping crane, to get her to lay a fertile egg through the use of artificial insemination. Archibald pioneered several techniques to rear cranes in captivity, including the use of crane costumes by human handlers. Archibald spent three years with Tex, acting as a male crane – walking, calling, dancing – to shift her into reproductive condition. As Archibald recounted the tale on The Tonight Show in 1982, he stunned the audience and host Johnny Carson with the sad end of the story – the death of Tex shortly after the hatching of her one and only chick, named Gee Whiz. Gee Whiz was successfully raised and mated with female whooping cranes.

The cranes winter in marshy areas along the Gulf Coast including the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. An environmental group, The Aransas Project, has sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), maintaining that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to ensure adequate water supplies for the birds’ nesting areas. The group attributes the deaths of nearly two dozen whooping cranes in the winter of 2008 and 2009 to inadequate flows from the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers. In March 2013 during continuing drought conditions, a federal court ordered TCEQ to develop a habitat protection plan for the crane and to cease issuing permits for waters from the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers. A judge amended the ruling to allow TCEQ to continue issuing permits necessary to protect the public’s health and safety. An appeals court eventually granted a stay in the order during the appeals process. The Guadalupe-Blanco and San Antonio river authorities joined TCEQ in the lawsuit, warning that restricting the use of their waters would have serious effects on the cities of New Braunfels and San Marcos as well as major industrial users along the coast.

In 2017, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center ended its 51-year effort to breed and train whooping cranes for release, due to budget cuts by the administration of President Donald Trump. The flock of 75 birds will move to the International Crane Foundation and the Calgary Zoo for continued breeding.

In 1957, the whooping crane was featured on a U.S. postage stamp supporting wildlife conservation.

Subsequent to hatching, the Operation Migration cranes are taught to follow their ultralight aircraft, fledged over their future breeding territory in Wisconsin, and led by ultralight on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida; the birds learn the migratory route and then return, on their own, the following spring. This reintroduction began in fall 2001 and has added birds to the population in each subsequent year (except 2007, when a disastrous storm killed all but one of the 2006 yearlings after their arrival in Florida).

As of May, 2011, there were 105 surviving whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP), including seventeen that had formed pairs, several of which are nesting and are incubating eggs. Two whooping crane chicks were hatched from one nest, on June 22, 2006. Their parents are both birds that were hatched and led by ultralight on their first migration in 2002. The chicks are the first whooping cranes hatched in the wild, of migrating parents, east of the Mississippi, in over 100 years. One of these young chicks was unfortunately predated on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The other young chick, a female, has successfully migrated with her parents to Florida. As noted above, in early February, 2007, 17 yearlings in a group of 18 were killed by the 2007 Central Florida tornadoes. All birds in that flock were believed to have died in the storms, but then a signal from one of the transmitters, "Number 15-06", indicated that it had survived. The bird was subsequently relocated in the company of some sandhill cranes. It died in late April from an as yet unknown cause, possibly related to the storm trauma. Two of the four DAR whooper chicks from 2006 were also lost due to predation. However, as of December, 2010, 105 birds had become established in the eastern United States population.

In December 2011, the Operation Migration escorting of nine cranes was interrupted by the Federal Aviation Administration due to a regulation prohibiting paid pilots of ultralight aircraft. After a month with the cranes kept in a pen, the FAA finally granted a one-time exemption to allow completion of the migration. In January 2016 citing the near-total failure of the hand-raised and guided birds to reproduce in the wild, the Fish and Wildlife Service made a decision to discontinue the ultralight program in favor of alternatives with reduced human interaction.
Due to the vulnerability of the Florida non-migratory population, an attempt is being made to establish a second non-migratory population in Louisiana's White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. This is a cooperative effort of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at LSU, and the International Crane Foundation. In March 2011, 10 cranes were released, but all but three had been lost by the time a second group of 16 were released in December. Subsequent cohorts followed, with 14 released in December 2012, 10 in January 2014, 14 in December 2014, 11 in January 2016 and 27 from November 2016 to January 2017.

The flock has established a range that includes the lower Mississippi in Louisiana, and as far into Texas as Wise County, west of Dallas. As of April 2017, the population numbered 57 birds. None of the first released group survived to adulthood, but in the Spring of 2014 the second cohort of birds began to form pairs and nest, producing the population's first eggs, although since the parents were still juveniles these eggs were infertile. The next year saw fertile eggs but none survived to hatching. However, in April 2016 a pair of reintroduced cranes hatched two chicks, one of which survived to fledge, represented the first in the wild in Louisiana since 1939. In 2017, a novel strategy was introduced: eggs in the process of hatching, taken from either captive birds or the Eastern Migratory Population, were swapped into Louisiana nests in place of infertile eggs, allowing the chicks to be raised by substitute crane parents in Louisiana.

A major hurdle with some of these reintroduced populations has been deaths to illegal hunting. Over a period of two years, five of the approximately 100 whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population were illegally shot and killed. One of the dead cranes was the female known as "First Mom". In 2006, she and her mate were the first eastern captive raised and released whoopers to successfully raise a chick to adulthood in the wild. This was a particular blow to that population because whoopers in the East do not yet have an established successful breeding situation. On March 30, 2011, Wade Bennett, 18, of Cayuga, Indiana and an unnamed juvenile pleaded guilty to killing First Mom. After killing the crane, the juvenile had posed holding up its body. Bennett and the juvenile were sentenced to a $1 fine, probation, and court fees of about $500, a penalty which was denounced by various conservation organizations as being too light. The prosecuting attorney has estimated that the cost of raising and introducing to the wild one whooping crane could be as much as $100,000. Overall, the International Crane Foundation estimates that the nearly 20% of deaths among the reintroduced cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population are due to shootings.