Predator likely killed Aransas whooper
3:53 PM, Mar 26, 2015
(permission to reprint granted )
CORPUS CHRISTI – Investigators have all but determined a predator killed the endangered whooping crane found in January on the backside of San Jose Island, though federal scientists have not completely ruled out a human element in the death.
A local hunting guide discovered the badly decomposed white bird on Jan. 4 near a duck blind in a shallow saltwater opening called Sand Lake. The guide immediately reported the lifeless adult crane to state game wardens.
A joint investigation by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service uncovered little evidence other than the bird at the scene and had virtually no leads, Texas Game Warden Capt. Henry Balderamas said soon after the discovery. The crane was sent to a federal forensic laboratory in Oregon, where scientists conducted a necropsy in hopes of explaining the death. The Caller-Times received results of the necropsy Thursday through a Freedom of Information request.
The document listed “trauma-predation suspect” as the cause of death, indicating that extensive damage to the bird’s neck was caused by the teeth of a carnivore of undetermined species. The report also included that an accompanying cause such as a gunshot could not be ruled out.
“In summary, I suspect predation trauma killed this whooping crane, but I cannot rule out the possibility that a gunshot wound or other human-induced trauma made this bird more easy prey,” the report’s author wrote.
A curious addition to the summary report alluded to something scientists observed in the crane’s tail section that may indicate it was handled by a human. The physical description that led investigators to this possibility was redacted from the copy of the necropsy report received by the Caller-Times.
Investigators reported the tail feathers were found some distance from where the bird was discovered.
No traces of metal were found in association with broken bones, but the report suggested these could have been washed away or removed by scavengers. Iron particles were found on parts of the bird’s body, but the report suggested these could have come from the ground.
“I would characterize this case as open pending further notice,” Balderamas said. “Since foul play cannot be completely ruled out, we consider this to be an open case, so any new information we receive will be looked into.”
Early on, news of the whooper’s death generated a groundswell of interest from birding and conservation groups, which together offered rewards totaling more than $27,000 to encourage people to report any information that might help investigators understand what happened.
This investigation is centered on a member of the only wild flock of whooping cranes in the world, which fell to a historic low of about 16 birds in the 1940s. The iconic bird, which stands five feet tall, spends each winter in marshes of Coastal Bend, mostly north of Rockport. The flock is monitored closely by biologists with the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the International Crane Foundation’s Texas Program.
Federal wildlife managers estimate the flock contains about 308 birds, two of which recently began their journey back to the flock’s breeding ground within the Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, according to Wade Harrell, the U.S. whooping crane coordinator with the Fish & Wildlife Service at the refuge.
Whooping cranes are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Penalties for harming or killing a crane can range up to a $100,000 fine and/or one year in federal prison. The last Texas investigation into the death of a whooping crane occurred in 2013, when a Dallas attorney admitted to shooting a juvenile whooper while duck hunting.
REPORT INFORMATION ON WHOOPING CRANE DEATH
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: 281-876-1520
Texas Parks & Wildlife Operation Game Thief: 800-792-4263
Friends of the Wild Whoopers: 251-626-7804; online: www.friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
International Crane Foundation: www.savingcranes.org
Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island: www.friendsofaransas.org
Whooping Crane Conservation Association: www.whoopingcrane.com
Audubon Texas: www.tx.audubon.org
Aransas Bird and Nature Club: www.aransasbirdandnatureclub.com
San Antonio Bay Foundation: www.sabay.org
***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****
Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.