Whooping Crane Migration and Conservation Needs

Whooping Crane Migration and Conservation Needs

So, you believe your commute to work is a challenging ordeal? Well then, try traveling from northern Canada to the Texas coast and back every year … under your own steam. Now that’s a long, risky 2,500 miles one way — 5,000 round trip commute.

Whooping cranes migrating north for nesting.
Whooping cranes migrating north for nesting.

Now, imagine you are a young 4 months old whooping crane recently hatched on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. You are traveling with your parents on your first migration from the Wood Buffalo nesting grounds to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. It seems unbelievable but wild whooping cranes families fly this 5,000 mile round trip route every year. They fly an average 200 miles a day in all kinds of weather not knowing what dangers lie ahead, where they will spend the night or what their next meal may be. After thinking about this, your commute to work in a nice, modern vehicle should seem like a piece of cake. (See Figure 1 for migration corridor.)

Astonishingly whooping cranes are not the only birds that make long migrations. On the North America continent more than 300 bird species migrate including cranes, waterfowl and song birds. At least 40 percent of all bird species are migratory. Billions of birds migrate every year between warm winter habitats and breeding grounds, often in the far north.

Unfortunately, increasing land development by humans is causing unprecedented threats to migratory and non-migratory birds and other wildlife. This is especially true for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population (AWBP) the only remaining wild self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes on the planet. One of the greatest needs is for more secure habitats within the migration corridor and adjacent to the Aransas Refuge. Although portions of breeding and wintering habitat frequented by the wild population are protected, those places are also geographically isolated. Habitat within the AWBP migration corridor is largely unprotected.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a revised Whooping Crane Recovery Plan which recommended (among other objectives) measuring and protecting stopover habitat, creating wetland habitat and managing vegetation.  Some of these recommendations are being accomplished.   http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Aransas/wwd/science/intl_recovery_plan.html

The migration between Aransas, Texas and the Northwest Territories of Canada spans a continent.  Many dangers exist in the approximately 5,000 miles the whooping cranes must travel every year. The birds must stop daily for feeding and rest. Stop over areas need an adequate supply of freshwater and food to improve the odds of the whooper’s survival. It would be most beneficial for daily stopovers to be located approximately every 50-100 miles along the migratory corridor. Due to varying weather patterns whoopers may need to stop unexpectedly. Additionally, birds having to fly too far in a day may reduce their overall health and fitness.

Until recently, little was known about where and when some whoopers stop over. Developing a comprehensive analysis of their migratory flight patterns that identifies the most critical areas and suitable habitat ensures the cranes continue to be viable. To learn more about the AWBP, the Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership began banding and tracking birds from the population in 2009. The purpose of the project is to document whooper locations, monitor their survival and identify their stop over locations. It is essential that all interests work together to help protect and manage whooping crane habitats as well as avoid destroying or degrading already well documented crane stopover sites.

Attention needed:  Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) believes that much more attention is needed to properly protect and manage the only remaining wild self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes on the planet. This flock has served as the “Noah’s Ark” for several efforts attempting to establish additional migratory and non-migratory flocks. The only remaining repository of genetic material from the original flocks of whooping cranes is embedded within the AWBP population. Therefore FOTWW believes it is essential to provide the utmost care for this population.

Experimental projects:  Several attempts have been, and are being made to establish new experimental flocks of whooping cranes. These projects are attempting to establish additional self-sustaining whooping crane populations in accordance with the International Recovery Plan for the Whooping Crane. The projects are under the guidance of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Young whoopers are initially hatched and reared in captivity and then introduced  into wild habitats using several methods. One project trains young whooping cranes to migrate between wildlife refuges in Wisconsin and Florida in an Eastern Migratory Population (EMP). Some of these whoopers have begun nesting and have raised several young. The migration corridor for these EMP birds is depicted in figure 1.

Another project is attempting to start a non-migratory flock in Louisiana. These whoopers are also reared in captivity and introduced directly into the White Lake wild habitats.  Conservationists are hopeful that these two projects will be successful.  Until these two flocks establish themselves by reproducing and adapting to the natural environment, they are considered as experimental.

Beginning in 1993, a flock of Whooping Cranes was reintroduced in the Kissimmee Prairie in central Florida. An average of 20 chicks, hatched and reared in captivity, was released at the Florida site each year in an effort to establish a new flock of non-migratory whoopers. Some of these birds matured and began nesting. In 2002, the first whooping crane in this flock fledged. This Florida non-migratory flock is no longer receiving release captive reared whooper chick. It experienced high mortality and low reproduction. Biologists continue to monitor the remaining birds in the Florida non-migratory flock to study the problems but this project is now inactive.

Whooping cranes are an endangered species and are considered to be the symbol of conservation in North America. Whooper interests are working persistently and hoping for more successes in the conservation of these magnificent birds.

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

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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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