Whooping Cranes Beginning Their Spring Journey to Canada

Media Contact: Mark Klym, 512-389-4644, mark.klym@tpwd.texas.gov

March 6, 2014

AUSTIN — Endangered whooping cranes will soon begin their annual 2,400-mile spring migration from Aransas to Canada. As the rare birds leave the Lone Star State, Texas residents and visitors are invited to report whooper sightings.

Texas Whooper Watch (http://tpwd.texas.gov/whoopingcranes/) is a volunteer monitoring program that is a part of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Texas Nature Trackers program. The program was developed as a citizen science initiative to help the agency learn more about whooping cranes and their winter habitats in Texas.

Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in the 1940s, whoopers have wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Recently though, several groups of whooping cranes expanded their wintering areas to include other coastal areas and some inland sites in Central Texas. Last year, whooping cranes from an experimental flock in Louisiana spent most of their summer months in Texas, and the Whooper Watch volunteers were able to provide valuable information to TPWD, Louisiana Game and Fish and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service about these birds.

This year, biologists expect whooping cranes to start moving north in mid-March or early April. Reports to Texas Whooper Watch will also help improve the accuracy of surveys on the wintering grounds, as the growth of the flock has made traditional census methods more difficult.

Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through north and central Texas, including Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria. During the migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. The typical sighting (71 percent of all observations) is fewer than three birds, although the fall migration this year produced some groups of more than 10 birds.  They may also be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane. Whoopers are the tallest birds in North America, measuring nearly five feet tall. The cranes are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight, red crown and black mustache. They fly with necks and legs outstretched.

Citizens can help by reporting sightings of whooping cranes and by preventing disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations. Sightings can be reported to whoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or (512) 389-TXWW (8999). Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored bands on their legs. Volunteers interested in attending training sessions to become “Whooper Watchers” in order to collect more detailed data may also contact  TPWD at whoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or 512-389-TXWW (8999).

Additional information, including photos of whooping crane look-alike species, can be found at http://tpwd.texas.gov/whoopingcranes/ and at http://www.whoopingcrane.com/report-a-sighting/.

2014-03-06

http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/newsmedia/releases/?req=20140306a

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Whooping Cranes Prove to be Tough Survivors

From the August 2010 edition of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine.

With grace, stamina and charisma, the whooping crane has shown an extraordinary ability to survive.

By Noreen Damude

What does the 3-D blockbuster film Avatar, with its lush reimagining of Edenic nature on an alien moon, have to do with the whooping crane? It’s true, the whooping crane story plays out like a Hollywood script: starting with tragedy, continuing with struggles and setbacks and ending with renewed hope and dreams for the future. The secret, though, lies in the word “avatar,” for the whooping crane is quintessentially a symbol of our own planet’s untamable past, conjuring up those half-remembered magical moments when the world was young and great white birds flew over vast marshlands and dark forests larger than life.

With forebears harking back to ancient Eocene landscapes, well before the transmogrifying touch of humans, the whooper has danced a fitful dance along the edge of extinction, reminding us of the fragility of life and of the tight connections we all share as living things. If any single bird species symbolizes the North American conservation movement of this century — and the compelling reasons to preserve and protect our natural heritage — the whooping crane is it. So what special charisma, what mystical power for garnering human empathy, does the whooping crane wield in a world increasingly fractured by interminable wars, terrorism and vanishing resources? Just like the Mercury astronauts of yore, whoopers strut the “right stuff.”

Click to read the rest of Noreen Damude’s article “Whooping Cranes Prove to be Tough Survivors”.

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Determination and the Whooping Crane

The two photos below were sent in by Kevin Sims, a fan of FOTWW. The two photos were recently taken on a foggy morning at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and show one lone Whooping Crane foraging deep in the mud for blue crab.

On the hunt for blue crab.
On the hunt for blue crab. Photo by Kevin Sims

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a short time, some determination, and muddy faced , the whooper is finally rewarded with a blue crab for its meal. By the size of the crab, it might be safe to say that the hunt was worth the effort. That is one large blue crab!

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A fine reward. Photo by Kevin Sims.
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Friends of the Wild Whoopers …. striving to conserve wild whooping cranes

Whooping cranes are the symbol of conservation in North America. Due to excellent cooperation between the United States and Canada, this endangered species is slowly recovering from the brink of extinction. There are several ongoing efforts by government and private organizations to protect and manage whooping cranes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service are the primary governmental agencies responsible as caretakers of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo National Park population (AWBP). These cranes nest in northern Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and winter on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. It is the only remaining wild, self-sustaining migratory population of whooping cranes in the world. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is one of the private groups whose mission is to assist the agencies in their role.

FOTWW’s goals and objectives are:

  1. Educating and keeping people informed about the only remaining wild, self-sustaining migratory population of whooping cranes in the world and management options to protect and increase the population.
  2. Later on, in a year or so, after increasing interest in FOTWW we will consider becoming a formal organization.
  3. During future months, make an effort to interest more people about FOTWW with emphasis on people along the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population (AWBP) flyway, including Canada.

 

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America standing at a height of approximately 5 feet. They have a 7 ½ foot wingspan measured from tip to tip.Whooping crane showing black tips of primary feathers.

          Whooping crane showing black tips of primary feathers.

They weigh only about 15 pounds even though they appear larger. Whooping cranes are almost entirely white. The body and wing feathers are a bright white, except on the tips of the outer wings. The tips of the primary feathers are black and can be observed only when their wings are outstretched as during flight.

A large red patch on the head is an obvious characteristic of the whooping crane. The red patch extends from the cheek, along the bill and over the top of the head. The red patch is made of skin and is almost featherless. Their eyes are yellow and their long legs are black. While in flight, their long necks are kept straight and their long dark legs trail behind. Whoopers are graceful flyers and picturesque dancers.

The baby chicks, known as colts, have a soft buff brown covering. When the chicks are about 40-days-of-age, cinnamon-brown feathers emerge. When they are one-year-old white adult plumage replaces the cinnamon-brown feathers. Whooping cranes live about 20-25 years in the wild.

Their preferred habitats are wetlands, marshes, mudflats, wet prairies and fields. They are omnivores and primarily eat crustaceans, small fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects. They also consume grains, marsh plants and acorns.

Their calls are loud and can carry several kilometers. They express “guard calls” for warning their partner about any potential danger. The crane pair will jointly call (“unison call”) in a very rhythmic and impressive way in the early morning , after courtship and for defending their territory. The first unison call ever recorded in the wild was taken in the Whooping Cranes’ wintering area in the in December 1999 and is documented here. http://www.craneworld.de/rufe/schreiduett.wav

Whooping-cranes-making-unison-call-at-nest-site.-photo-by-Brian-Johns.jpg

During the 1800s, whooping cranes were more abundant. Nesting was more widespread with records of nest in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, the Dakotas and northward through the prairie provinces of Canada, Alberta, and the Northwest Territory. Wetland drainage and clearing of areas for farming destroyed whooper habitat and hunting reduced their numbers. The only wild population that survived by the 1940s was the isolated one nesting in Canada’s Northwest Territory. This population struggled but, with improved protection and public education the slow increase of birds has continued.

The AWBP population increased from 16 individuals in 1941 to approximately 300 wild birds in September 2013. It is the only whooping crane population that maintains its numbers by rearing chicks in the wild. Efforts to increase the whooping crane population are ongoing in an experimental Eastern Population which migrates between Wisconsin and Florida. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership rears birds in captivity and releases them into the wild. Approximately 108 birds that they reared in captivity and released into the wild survive currently in this population. In addition, two experimental non-migratory flocks have been initiated in Florida (20 birds in 2014) and Louisiana (33 birds in 2014). An additional 162 whooping cranes are held in captivity to provide eggs to further increase the three experimental flocks and for research purposes.

Whooping-crane-current-and-former-range-and-migration-route

Whooping crane current and-former range and migration routes.

Although there has been progress in increasing the numbers of whoopers, only one population maintains its numbers by rearing chicks in the wild. This flock now contains an estimated 300 birds that nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, in the Northwest Territory of Canada. After rearing their chicks, they migrate to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas and bordering private land where they spend the winter. It is on this wintering ground where they are especially vulnerable. A chemical or oil spill could damage or destroy their food supply. Or a hurricane could destroy their habitat and kill birds. And a growing, equally dangerous problem is diversion of river waters that flow into the crane’s habitat.

Competition is severe for the fresh water which is being used upstream for agriculture, business and for human uses in cities. Litigation is in progress to hopefully settle this problem. The steadily diminishing flow of fresh water into the bays and estuaries is making the area less productive for whooping crane foods. These foods are essential to keep the birds healthy for their 2,500-mile migration back to Canada where winter is just ending. And once there the nesting pairs need reserve energy for producing more young.

During March and April the cranes migrate from Texas back across the Great Plains and Saskatchewan to reach their nesting area in Wood Buffalo National Park. Whoopers begin pairing when 2 to 3 years of age. Their interesting courtship involves dancing together and a duet called the “unison call”. Once pairs are bonded, whooping cranes mate for life. Females begin producing eggs at age 4 and generally produce two eggs each year. Typically only one chick survives but survival of both chicks is not unusual. Whooper pairs return to the same location (“territory”) each spring. If trespasser whoopers are in their nesting area territory, they are chased away. Nesting territories may include a square mile or larger area. Chasing other cranes away ensures there will be enough food for them and their chicks. During night whoopers stand in shallow water where they are more secure from danger.

Whooping crane nesting habitat, Wood Buffalo National Park, Cana photo by Brian Johns

Whooping crane nesting habitat, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada                         photo by Brian Johns

When the whooper pair settles in, they build a nest in a shallow wetland, often on a shallow-water island. Their large nest typically measures about 4 feet across and 8 to 18 inches high. It is assembled from plants that grow in the water (sedges, bulrush, and cattail). The two eggs are laid one to two days apart so one chick emerges before the other. Parents take turns keeping the eggs warm and they hatch in about 30 days. Chicks are called “colts” because they have long legs and appear to gallop when they run. Young colts can walk and swim short distances within a few hours after hatching and may leave the nest when a day old. They grow fast so they will be strong for the imminent migration back south. In summer, whooping cranes eat crayfish, minnows, frogs, insects, plant tubers, snails, mice, voles, and other baby birds. Colts become good fliers by the time they are 80 days of age.

During September through November the adult whoopers lead their young and retrace their migration pathway to escape harsh winters and reach the warm Texas coast. As they migrate they stop occasionally to rest and feed on agricultural and weed seeds that fell to the ground as farmers harvested their fields. When they reach the Texas coast they live in shallow marshes, bays, and tidal flats. Pairs and their young return to the same area each winter. As they did on their nesting territory, they defend their winter territory by chasing away other cranes. Winter territories normally encompass 200 to 300 acres. Winter foods are predominantly blue crabs and soft-shelled clams but include shrimp, eels, snakes, cranberries, minnows, crayfish, acorns, and roots.

Whooping crane winter habitat on Aransas NWR, Texas photo by USFWS

Individual whooping cranes may live as long as 25 years. However, they face many dangers in the wild. And while they can defend themselves and their young from many enemies, they must continuously stay on guard. Bobcats, coyotes, wolves, and golden eagles kill adult cranes. Crows, ravens and bears eat eggs and mink eat crane chicks. As they migrate, especially during storms or poor light, they occasionally crash into power lines and kill or injure themselves. In addition, they die of several types of diseases similar to all creatures.

 

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