The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the controversial Keystone Pipeline has been released for review. This pipeline would transport tar sands through 875 miles of the endangered whooping crane migratory route.
Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) contends that the pipeline is an unneeded and foolish project. An accidental spill of oil from the pipeline could have a serious adverse impact on whooping cranes and other wildlife species and valuable ground water supplies. The SEIS concluded that of the fourteen endangered species who frequent the pipelines route, only a beetle would be threatened.
Whoopers – 2 adults and 1 juvenile with 2 sandhills. photo by Peggy Diaz
Construction of the pipeline would produce 3,900 temporary jobs and only 50 permanent jobs. An NBC TV report closed with an admission that many of the officials who served on the impact committee were associated with people with pipeline connections.
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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:
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.
Later on, in a year or so, after increasing interest in FOTWW we will consider becoming a formal organization.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Below is a link to a recording of Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, recorded January 26, 1954. The Macaulay Library has twelve different Whooping Crane recordings but this one is by far the best out of the twelve. It talks about 1954 being the first year that they had three young colts successfully migrate with their parents from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. The Whooping Crane population at ANWR for that winter was a total of 24, including the three colts. The first speaker you hear in the recording is Arthur Allen, a renowned ornithologist,for whom the Arthur A. Allen Award is named after. Julian Howard, the second person to speak and mentions the annual count being 24, was the manager of ANWR at the time.
Six months later, the nesting grounds were found at Wood Buffalo National Park and no longer unknown. Very slowly during the past 60 years the flock has increased to approximately 300 in 2013. That’s progress by any measure.
The whooping crane has long been the flagship of the conservation movement. The majestic bird—North America’s tallest—flies more than 8,000 kilometres each year, breeding in northern Alberta and wintering in marshes along the Texas coast. Still, its future remains uncertain.
Today we think of species becoming endangered when sprawling big box stores and subdivisions displace remnant natural areas within and around our cities or when large-scale industrial resource extraction fragments wilderness areas.
Whooping cranes have a longer history. In the late 1800s, Canadians began farming the prairies, expelling cranes from their breeding habitat. At the same time, Americans drained west coast marshes, where whooping cranes overwintered. Hunting also contributed to their decline.
North America was once home to more than 10,000 cranes. By 1938, the population reached an all-time low of 14 known adults.
In the early 1940s, the conservation movement leapt into action.
Over seventy years later, after significant breeding-area protection, captive breeding, aircraft-led migration and relocation efforts, the whooping crane has made a slow, often tenuous comeback.
Today there are several captive-bred and non-migratory populations, but only one—shared by the U.S. and Canada—that is self-sustaining and wild. That group breeds every year in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Northwest Territories and Alberta, and winters in Texas, flying about 4,000 kilometres each way.
Although the population has been steadily increasing—there were 74 nests counted in Wood Buffalo National Park in 2013 and a few breeding pairs outside the park—it still faces a number of perilous risks in Texas and Alberta—not un-coincidently, the oil kings of North America.
Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon.
According to COSEWIC, Canada’s independent science assessment body of at-risk species, U.S. chemical spills are one of the biggest threats:
“…the greatest concern is in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the Texas coast. Numerous oil and gas wells and connecting pipelines are located in bay and upland sites near the cranes’ winter habitat, and many barges carrying dangerous, toxic chemicals travel the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway daily through Whooping Crane winter habitat. A spill or leak of these substances could contaminate or kill the cranes’ food supply or poison the cranes.”
Although the birds have a national protected area in Canada to breed, they still need to survive along their migration and stopover route—right over the Alberta Tar sands.
One of the most serious threats to the population is juvenile birds dying during their migration from Wood Buffalo to Texas. They risk landing in toxic tailings ponds, flying into power lines and exposure to water and air contaminated by the bitumen extraction process.
The fact that there is only one self-sustaining wild population of crane heightens the risk of a single, catastrophic event.
Crane recovery efforts cannot be done in isolation. National parks that protect Canadian breeding areas are important, but insufficient if the cranes can’t safely make their way back to Texas for their blue crab feast.
For the whooping crane—and for Canada’s over 300 other at-risk species—we need to find ways to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems even where development occurs.