Whooping Cranes Love Blue Crabs

It won’t be long now and the “wild ones” will be thinking about returning to WBNP and nesting. Some of their cousins, the sandhill crane have already started their mirgration. At this time, the wild ones are still enjoying the blue crabs that, thankfully, have been plentiful this winter at ANWR.

Why are blue crabs so important to a Whooping Crane’s diet? The Whooping Cranes require blue crabs to build up their body resources and reserves for their long journey home and for successful nesting. Without a sufficient supply of blue crabs to eat during the winter, their chances of a successful nesting season and raising chicks is drastically reduced. Blue crabs are rich in protein but more importantly, the meat and shells are highly rich in calcium, necessary for strong bones and also for forming eggshells.

In the photo below, you can see a Whooping Crane foraging for blue crabs as one looks on.

Whooping Crane looking for blue crabs.
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Sims.

With those long pointed bills, the blue crab below was no match for the whooper.

Whooping Crane looking for blue crabs.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims.
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Whooper History – from Gloom to Dream to Restoration

Interesting history briefs compiled by Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Recorded history of whooping cranes has ranged from beliefs that the birds would become extinct to efforts to restore the flock. Friends of the Wild Whoopers researched the literature and came across some interesting material. Some of our findings are posted here for your interest:

Gloom:   The following is from the Gutenburg Project and dated 1913.

OUR VANISHING WILD LIFE ITS EXTERMINATION AND PRESERVATION BY WILLIAM T. HORNADAY, Sc.D. Page 19. “The Whooping Crane. —This splendid bird will almost certainly be the next North American species to be totally exterminated. It is the only new world rival of the numerous large and showy cranes of the old world; for the sandhill crane is not in the same class as the white, black and blue giants of Asia. We will part from our stately Grus americanus with profound sorrow, for on this continent we ne’er shall see his like again. The well-nigh total disappearance of this species has been brought close home to us by the fact that there are less than half a dozen individuals alive in captivity, while in a wild state the bird is so rare as to be quite unobtainable. For example, for nearly five years an English [Page 19] gentlemen has been offering $1,000 for a pair, and the most enterprising bird collector in America has been quite unable to fill the order. So far as our information extends, the last living specimen captured was taken six or seven years ago. The last wild birds seen and reported were observed by Ernest Thompson Seton, who saw five below Fort McMurray, Saskatchewan, October 16th, 1907, and by John F. Ferry, who saw one at Big Quill Lake, Saskatchewan,

Photo was taken at “WHOOPING CRANES IN THE ZOOLOGICAL PARK

in June, 1909. The range of this species once covered the eastern two-thirds of the continent of North America. It extended from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains, and from Great Bear Lake to Florida and Texas. Eastward of the Mississippi it has for twenty years been totally extinct, and the last specimens taken alive were found in Kansas and Nebraska. Photo was taken at “WHOOPING CRANES IN THE ZOOLOGICAL PARK ”

Dream:    Two articles written by John O’Reilly in 1954 and 1955 issues of “Sports Illustrated” describe the extraordinary efforts of individuals, conservation organizations and government agencies to protect and manage the endangered whooping cranes. These two articles are posted below:
The surviving remnant of the great race of whooping cranes, hardly more than two dozen birds, will be “escorted” this fall from Canada to Texas. That is, they will be escorted insofar as it is possible for human beings to escort wild creatures which fly high and come to rest in lonely places. But, elusive though they may be, these huge white birds with the black wingtips will be followed on their route by thousands of well-wishers.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Here Comes The Cranes, September 20, 1954
by John O’Reilly

The Survivors of America’s tallest birds will be “escorted” south

In advance of their coming a campaign is being conducted to alert the human population along the migration route of the cranes. As was the case last fall, radio stations will broadcast appeals to report the birds but not molest them. Their trip will be announced by newspapers. Sportsmen’s clubs and civic organizations have helped spread the word. Thousands of post cards bearing the facts and a picture of a whooper have been mailed to persons living along the flight lane.
All this is part of the international effort to help America’s tallest bird in its struggle for existence.

ONLY 26 ARE LEFT
When the birds migrated last spring there were 26 whooping cranes left—in the entire population of the species. Grus americana doesn’t occur in other parts of the world and they have been studied so thoroughly that the chance of even a single bird being discovered outside this group is highly improbable.

Two of the cranes, found crippled by gunshot, are now captives in a New Orleans zoo. The rest winter on the wide marshes and prairies of the 47,000-acre Arkansas Federal Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast, 40 miles from Corpus Christi. There they live singly and in family groups, each family occupying a territory of some 500 acres from which other cranes are driven. Without the use of a blind it is difficult to get within half a mile of them. On a trip to the refuge I jeeped and stalked the prairies for days before I got a close view of the cranes. When a pair finally flew right over me I was told that I was luckier than most.

The exact location of the nesting grounds of the remaining whoopers has not been found. This summer a scientist hovering in a helicopter over the wild country south of Canada’s Great Slave Lake looked down and spotted four whooping cranes, three adults and a young one. His find was the best evidence so far of the general location of their breeding grounds.

The whooping crane once inhabited the central part of the continent from the Arctic Coast to central Mexico. It demanded plenty of space in which to live and rear its young, and when it stood at full height to utter its challenging buglelike call, it was almost six feet tall. But as the prairies were tamed and planted, the whooping cranes dwindled steadily.

Restoration:

PROJECT FOR SALVATION
Now the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society are partners in a project designed to save the whooping crane from extinction. Numerous state agencies and private groups are cooperating. One of the prime workers on the project is Robert P. Allen, research ornithologist of the National Audubon Society. Allen devoted three years to an intensive study of the cranes, hoping to find a way to halt their decline.

During that time he lived with the birds on the lonely Texas marshes in winter. In early spring he took off by plane in advance of their migration and intercepted them along the Platte River in Nebraska. He traced their migration route through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and into Saskatchewan where they disappeared into Canada’s north country. He flew thousands of miles in the far north in a vain search for their nesting grounds.

People often ask how on earth the cranes know enough to go right to the refuge to spend the winter. The answer is that the presence of the whooping cranes there is historic and was one of the main reasons why the refuge was established in 1937.

As a result of Allen’s recommendations, numerous steps have been taken to aid the cranes. One of the main objectives has been to find the nesting grounds and learn whether there are any factors there which are limiting the increase. Canada has announced that when the nesting area is found it will be declared an inviolate sanctuary. Plans are now being made for a systematic search of the area next summer.

Each fall the refuge men are waiting eagerly as the cranes come back in little groups. By early December they are all in and the refuge men make an exact count by flying over them in small planes. In recent years the flock has returned with an average of four young birds. But usually a few of the parents are lost, some from being shot, and others from unknown causes. Sometimes the population fluctuates perilously. The gain or loss of a single bird is vital to the survival of the race.

Last year there was a gain. Twenty-one whoopers took off for the North in the spring and in the fall all 21 returned, bringing three gawky offspring with them. This fall more eyes than ever will be on the alert in the country’s most unusual bird-watching program.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Whoop for Cranes  –   Nov.21, 1955,   by John O’Reilly

Scientists who searched arduously and long for the nests of the all-but-extinct whooping crane rejoiced last week: its young are on the increase.  Among birds, the all-but-extinct whooping crane is most symbolic of the mighty sweep of wilderness that once was America. Tall, wary and aloof, the whooping crane demands plenty of living space. It proclaims its utter freedom with a far-reaching, buglelike call. It regards the intrusions of man with an imperious look in its cold, yellow eyes. Although but a remnant of a once-great race, Grus americana seems imbued with a special urge to survive.

These are some of the reasons why the news of the return of 20 adult whooping cranes with a bonanza of eight young has just been greeted with such national exuberance. Last spring 21 whoopers left their wintering area on the Texas coast for their breeding grounds in northern Canada. By last Monday all except one adult were back in Texas. This bird may be lost or it still may be on the way. Sometimes the last migrants don’t get back until the first week in December.

A CAUSE FOR REJOICING
The appearance of eight young birds this year is cause for rejoicing among followers of the cranes both in the United States and Canada. The eight youngsters represent the largest crop since wildlife experts first started counting the remaining cranes 17 years ago. The largest previous number was seven young in 1939.

Anxiety over the migrating whoopers mounted steadily during the past two months as they made their 2,400-mile trip. Julian Howard, manager of the 47,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas, has been swamped with demands for information on the returning whooper families. Never has the welfare of a migrating band of birds been of such concern to so many.

During the summer, workers on Project Whooping Crane, the international effort to keep the big birds flying, discovered the long-sought nesting ground of the last of the whoopers. As a result, it was known that the cranes had hatched at least six young.

Last summer, just as interest in the whoopers was reaching its height, the United States Air Force announced plans for establishing a photoflash bombing range within a mile of part of the birds’ wintering grounds. The National Audubon Society and local Audubon societies all over the country sent protests. More protests came from the National Parks Association, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Nature Association and individuals who had helped in the struggle to save the cranes. Then the Canadian government made a verbal inquiry to the State Department. Last month the Air Force announced that its proposal to establish the bombing range had been withdrawn.

Old records show that whooping cranes once nested on the great prairies of the West and ranged over most of the country. Gradually they gave way before the plow and the gun, disappearing as their nesting grounds were settled and turned into wheat lands.

As long ago as 1923 some wildlife writers had declared the whooping crane extinct. The “last” nest had been found in Saskatchewan in 1922, and the young bird was taken from it, stuffed and placed in a museum. The existence of the wintering group on the Texas coast was known only to a few and it was their presence that led to the establishment, at that spot, of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The big fight to save the whoopers started when Project Whooping Crane was set up 10 years ago.

The closest human associate of the whoopers since then has been Robert P. Allen, a square-built, black-haired Pennsylvanian. As research ornithologist of the National Audubon Society and leader in Project Whooping Crane, he had studied the cranes on their wintering grounds but his attempts to find their nesting sites in the far north had been fruitless. But, as he and others continued their work, public interest increased steadily.

The cause of the whooping crane became of such widespread interest that thousands of persons were on the lookout for them. Then in June 1954 some whoopers were spotted from a plane in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, a wilderness area of 17,300 square miles, most of which is never visited by anybody, tourists or otherwise.

This knowledge led the international partners in Project Whooping Crane—the Canadian Wildlife Service, the’ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society—to launch an all-out effort to find the nests. Their aim was to discover whether anything or anybody was molesting the birds as they reared their young.

Allen was ready to start north to lead the expedition when William A. Fuller, biologist of the Canadian Wildlife Service, became the first man to see a wild whooper’s nest since that “last” nest was reported 33 years ago. Fuller was flying in the wild country along the Sass River on May 18 with Edward Wellien and Wesley Newcomb of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he spotted a pair of whoopers and a nest. On the same flight two more nests were seen.

This news spurred the expedition to action. Next to the actual finding of the nests the most important thing was to reach the area on the ground; to learn what, if any, were the dangers to the cranes; to study their nesting habitat and collect samples of their food. Allen hurried north and was met at Fort Smith, an outpost on the Slave River, by Raymond Stewart of the Canadian Wildlife Service and Robert E. Stewart, biologist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fort Smith is the jumping-off place for prospectors in the uranium rush. Men come and go and low conversations about uranium strikes are carried on in corners. So, as the three outfitted for their expedition, they were greeted with knowing smiles and sly smirks when they said they were heading into the bush to look for birds.

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Wood Buffalo whooping crane habitat, Canada.

It was chilly on the morning of May 23 when the expedition set out down the mighty Slave River, which winds northwest to Great Slave Lake. At a great bend in the river, 44 miles from Fort Smith, they unloaded their supplies, cooked a meal and headed into the spruce forest. The Indian packers, two of them carrying the canoe, were strung out behind them. Nine hours later the three scientists said good by to the Indians and made their first camp on the shore of Long Slough.

As they moved down the slough the next morning in their overloaded canoe, the country around them was feeling the first touch of spring. Cattails were just beginning to show green. Canvasbacks, goldeneyes, buffleheads and other waterfowl were all about them. To the west they caught occasional glimpses of buffalo herds, with a spring crop of reddish-brown calves. They were still in high spirits when they made another portage, pitching their second camp on the banks of the Little Buffalo River. They moved up the Little Buffalo, still feeling fine. Turning into the Sass River, they rounded a bend to encounter their first trouble. It was a log jam, not of lumber logs but of trees and snags. They soon realized that the Sass was just one log jam after another, a fact that had not been apparent during their aerial survey.

They were sitting on the bank of the river, returning the stares of solemn buffalo and wondering what to do next, when they learned from their radio that they were believed lost and had become the objects of a search. The Northwest Mounted Police and park officials had been alerted. Unable to send out messages on their radio, they decided to strike for Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake, where word of their safety could be sent out. After a turbulent trip down the Little Buffalo, they persuaded a Chipewyan Indian to carry a message across the frozen expanse of Great Slave Lake to Fort Resolution. Three days later Pat Carey, veteran bush pilot, dropped into the river mouth in his plane and took them back to Fort Smith. They were back where they had started.

A TRY BY HELICOPTER
Disappointment over their failure was forgotten on learning they could get the services of a helicopter which had been working north of Great Slave Lake. The helicopter transported them and their gear but, blown off course by a strong cross wind, the pilot became confused and dropped them 20 miles from where they thought they were landing. They didn’t realize this dismal fact until they had fought their way on foot for three days through swamps and sloughs.

Now they were really lost, and to make matters worse mosquitoes had emerged in millions, augmented by black flies, deer flies and a superdreadnaught called the bulldog fly. Their only relief from the clouds of insects came at night when they shut up their tent, killed the mosquitoes that were waiting inside and went to sleep.

At last, admitting they were licked, they put their canoe in the nearest river and started downstream. It turned out to be the Sass, the river of log jams. This time they cut their way through or portaged around 42 log jams, using the ax as much as the paddle. Reaching the Little Buffalo River, they went downstream and made the long portage back to the Slave River where a boat took them once more back to Fort Smith.

All told, they had been in the mosquito-infested woods for a month and hadn’t reached the home of the cranes. They had called the whole thing a failure and were ready to pull out when they learned another helicopter was available. Bob Stewart went back to Washington but Ray Stewart and Bob Allen prepared their gear for a third assault of the vast swamps.

This helicopter dropped them in the right spot and, as before, they started scouring the area on foot. Several days later Allen and Stewart emerged from a thicket to see a flash of white ahead of them. Slipping up, they came upon an adult whooping crane, drawn up to its full height of five and a half feet, silent and alert. Nearby was another. The two birds separated, finally moving out of sight. It was not until later that they learned this pair was hiding two offspring from them.

The goal had been reached. For 10 days the scientists studied the nesting habitat of the cranes. They collected specimens of frogs, fish, snails and other animal life which form the summer diet of the cranes. They also collected plant samples and made notes on everything that might have a bearing on the life of the whoopers.

Their work done, the helicopter ferried them out to the Slave River and they came up the river through the arctic twilight to Fort Smith in an outboard-driven skiff. Several days later I joined Bob Allen and Bill Fuller on a final aerial survey of the nesting area. As we moved over this watery world the scientists spotted two big, white birds. George Dannemann, our pilot, circled down to where we could tell they were whooping cranes. As the plane banked in a tight circle, we all saw not just the one, but two rusty-brown youngsters, two feet tall and standing between their white parents.

The scientists could restrain themselves no longer but began letting out whoops that would have done credit to the birds themselves. “Two young,” shouted Allen, and we all yelled in joy at just about the rarest sight that the bird world can offer in North America.
We saw two more fledglings on that flight and the scientists were jubilant. They and the thousands of others in the United States and Canada who are pulling for the whoopers know the cranes can never be brought back to their former numbers. But they also know that if Grus americana should disappear altogether it would mean the loss of something truly representative of the North American continent, for whooping cranes are nowhere else to be found.———End of O’Reilly article.

Voices from the Past:  A 1954 recording of whooping cranes at Aransas. Pam Bates explains, “The Macaulay Library has 12 different whooping crane recordings but this one was my favorite because it talks about 1954 being the first year that they had 3 young whoopers that migrated with their parents from Canada. The whooping Crane population at Aransas was 24 that winter.”

Pam Bates advises, ”The first speaker is Arthur Allen, a renowned ornithologist and who the Arthur A Allen Award is named after. Julian Howard, the second person to speak and mentions the annual count for 24 was the manager of Aransas at the time. Click on the link and follow:   ML: ML Audio 2739: Whooping Crane   macaulaylibrary.org

Whooping crane bugling

Click on the following to hear a whooping crane unison call:        Unison (334kb wave)
Present:    John O’Reilly was correct when he wrote in 1955 that “They and the thousands of others in the United States and Canada who are pulling for the whoopers know the cranes can never be brought back to their former numbers. But they also know that if Grus americana   should disappear altogether it would mean the loss of something truly representative of the North American continent, for whooping cranes are nowhere else to be found. ”

Thank goodness that some of our government agencies and private conservation organizations continued to work to restore the whooping crane flock. Very slowly during the past 60 years the flock has increased to approximately 300 in 2014. That’s progress by any measure.

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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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Will Bugles Blow No More?

James Osborne Stevenson became the first refuge manager of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas under the Bureau of Biological Survey. There he spent much of his time observing, studying, and photographing whooping cranes. He took the first ever color films of their courtship dances, and published a number of scientific and public interest articles on these cranes. In 1943, he published an article called Will Bugles Blow No More? about their endangerment. Jim died of a stroke on October 14, 1991. ~ Pam Bates

Will Bugles Blow No More?

BACK IN 1937, the boys used to gather around the old coal burner in Cap Daniel’s store at Austwell, Texas, commenting from time to time on the fate of the farmer. A visitor could have heard them mulling over the latest news: “I hear the government is buying up ‘the Blackjacks’ for a pile of money just to protect a couple of them squawking cranes! They tell me they ain’t bad eating but there’s no open season on them.” To this came the inevitable reply: “If you can’t shoot them, what the good are they?”

FACTS ARE INVARIABLY garbled in any hot-stove league. The Blackjack Peninsula, lying on the Gulf Coast of south Texas, near Austwell, was purchased as a national wildlife refuge not only to protect a remnant of the endangered whooping crane but also waterfowl, upland game and big-game animals. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, also furnishes feeding grounds for such fine waders as reddish, snowy and American egrets, Louisiana herons and the rare roseate spoonbill. These birds nest on the nearby Second Chain of Islands in San Antonio Bay, a sanctuary guarded by the National Audubon Society.

HEART-SHAPED, THE peninsula is fringed with salt marshes which are dotted with brackish ponds and bayous. The gently-rolling interior of the refuge is prairie-like, much of it covered with oak and sweet bay brush. There are scattered mottes or groves of large, windswept, gnarled live oaks, wrapped with mustang grapevines, and an undestory of mustang French mulberry  and  palmetto.

WHILE THE PURCHASE of this land for wildlife purposes was not made until 1937, it had served as a sanctuary since 1921. Mr. Leroy Denman, former owner and active conservationist, had protected wildlife on the area, and through his efforts herds of white-tailed deer and flocks of Rio Grande turkeys had increased tremendously. These animals still range through the mottes, parks and brushlands, together with the oft-persecuted peccary or javelina, native wild pig of the South-west.

OF THE 235 SPECIES of birds now known to have visited this 47,000-acre sanctuary, it was the whooping crane, largest of them all, that most intrigued me. Even before going to Texas, I anticipated seeing these birds on the refuge, one of their ancestral wintering grounds.

ONE LATE OCTOBER afternoon, shortly after I assumed my duties as manager of the Aransas Refuge, I accompanied some visiting officials on a tour of the area. At that time the roads were mere sand ruts cut through pasture land, winding, where necessary, to skirt “the brush.” As we came around a thicket into open grassland, we heard the guttural croaking of sand-hill cranes, alarmed at our approach.

Looking ahead, we saw about forty of these birds gathered around an artesian well. Our binoculars picked out from this group two stately white birds, much taller than their companions. How magnificent they were! Their plumage gleamed in the bright sunlight. We could see a carmine crown, forehead and lores, and a patch of red along the lower part of each cheek giving a walrus mustache effect. To watch these wary giants teeter from one foot to the other while awkwardly scanning the vicinity for danger was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Here at last were those rare, beautiful, spectacular birds—the whooping cranes! All too soon they flew, revealing another distinctive marking, the black wing tips.

Will Bugles Blow No More?

EACH AUTUMN WHOOPING cranes come to this avian winter resort for a five or six-months’ vacation. Old-timers, who once owned small cattle ranches in the Blackjacks, told me that back in the ’70s and ’80s, hundreds of the big white birds were present from October to April. Their occasional raids on sweet potato patches near ranch-houses made them none too popular with housewives. Generally, though, they preferred to feed on shellfish and mullet, which they picked up in the salt marshes and ponds near St. Charles, San Antonio, or Mullet bays. The sand-hill crane, a much commoner bird, usually stayed inland on the prairies or in brush-lands. Mexican cowhands recognized this habitat preference of the whooper and, with their penchant for picturesque names, called it Viejo del Agua—the old man of the water.

MOST LOCAL NAMES are based on the color of this species or on its call notes. Adults are known as white cranes or Grulla Blanco; immature, cinnamon-colored birds as red cranes. One accepted name in Texas is bugle crane—since the loud piercing notes sound like a trumpet. But if you have ever heard a child’s intake of breath while suffering from whooping cough, you’ll know why the crane is called a whooper. Imagine the volume multiplied many times—and then crouch within thirty feet of the birds, as I have—the result is ear-splitting and blood-curdling. No wonder this war whoop can be heard at a distance of more than two miles!

FOR THREE WINTERS we kept careful count of the cranes on the refuge. In 1938-39 there were 10 adults and 4 immatures; the next winter 15 adults and 7 young; in 1940-41, 21 adults and 5 young—the largest population noted in recent years. We were inclined to consider this growth in numbers as a hopeful sign that the species was increasing until we realized that possibly it was due to “foreign” birds from the Louisiana marshes supplementing the usual wintering flock. The number of young birds which have been coming down from Canada with their parents each fall has been pitifully small. Although whoopers ordinarily lay two eggs, the hazards of hatching and rearing young birds were such that most parent birds, that had had any success in nesting, were accompanied by an “only child.” Very few family groups ever contained rusty-colored twins. Confronted with such low nesting success and survival, how can this species persist, let alone increase?

PERHAPS WHOOPING cranes could not have survived this long were it not for their natural wariness. They prefer broad expanses of prairie or open salt marsh permitting an unbroken view of the surroundings for miles around. On the refuge, they favor tho salt flats, lagoons and brackish bays where crabs and mollusks abound. Sometimes, birds venture into the brush in search of blackjack or live oak acorns, but bay flats are more to their liking and there they find greater safely. They feed in small groups, a few adults or a pair with its young. Immature birds are almost invariably flanked by their parents whose ever-watchful eyes scan the countryside on the lookout for signs of danger.

CRANES HAVE A CRAVING for fresh water and will fly long distances for a drink. In the fall of 1939, fresh water was at a premium and cranes frequented an artesian well on the refuge twice a day. Here was a chance for some close-ups of the birds! One day John Lynch, biologist with Fish and Wildlife Service, and I hopefully set out with Leica and movie camera to photograph one of the most difficult subjects in the American bird world.

WE SNEAKED UP to the well on hands and knees, collecting stinging nettles and grass burs all the way. Then as luck would have it, a cowboy flushed the cranes and geese resting there. Hiding in the corner of an old corral about fifty feet from an overflow pool near the well, we made a makeshift blind of boards and dead weeds while we waited. Two hours later, in came two groups of cranes—a family of three and a group of three adults. We expected a fight for we had noticed that family groups on the feeding grounds resented the intrusion of other cranes. However, a truce was called until all thirsts were satisfied. The male of the family group was not enthusiastic about the strangers but tolerated them. Flocks of Canada geese, widgeons and pintails flew in and lined up for water, awaiting their turn, but did not drink until the cranes had finished. The male of the family group took pokes at geese when they got “out of line,” and once he jabbed at another crane that got in his way. This bird, caught off guard, tripped and fell over a much surprised Canada goose resting nearby. We got our pictures—although we were more nervous than the birds!

Will Bugles Blow No More?

I WELL REMEMBER another memorable occasion. One April morning, patrolman Everett Beaty and I were on the east-shore flats trying to determine how many cranes remained of the winter’s population. The few birds we saw appeared nervous as though impatient to be off for their summer home in Canada. As we watched a feeding pair, the larger of the two suddenly approached its companion, jumped into the air with outstretched wings, then alighted and began to flutter his wings and bow. Could we believe our eyes? Yes, we were watching the first stages of the famous courtship dance of the whooper! This dance, if it can be dignified by such a term, never lasted more than a minute or so. It did, however, take place occasionally throughout the day between extended periods of feeding.

THIS STATELIEST OF birds loses all its dignity while courting. Picture, if you will, Ichabod Crane of Sleepy Hollow at a jitterbug contest. The male jumps into the air, beating his wings, then flutters about his mate. Sometimes he bows low, an ungainly curtsy, with head and body near the ground. While in a crouching position, his wings droop, he charges toward his mate, circling her and perhaps letting out a few whoops. At times both birds face each other, jumping up and down while their wings beat the air. Most of the dance is performed by the male, the hen playing the role of interested onlooker. She often acts coyly, blithely feeding while walking away from him. Then, if her mate’s ardor lags, she turns about and flies to him as though begging for more attention. This leads to more bowing and scraping on his part.

A LATE-STAYING FAMILY group, lingering on through May, in 1941, gave us the opportunity to observe how the young birds are treated during the season of courtship. It was comical to find that the young bird of this group, so jealously guarded during the previous winter by its parents, was an unwanted wallflower when the male asked his mate for a dance. At this season, the male had no use for his offspring and would threaten it every time it came near; the young bird then wandered off to feed alone. The pair couldn’t be blamed, of course, for wanting a little privacy for their wild hopping and ungainly antics which kept up until late June. After that, the courtship subsided, and the immature crane was allowed to rejoin the older couple. Although the birds remained on the refuge all that summer, it is doubtful whether they attempted to nest. We had hoped, of course, that the birds would nest on this southern refuge, a custom which, it is said, they practice in the Louisiana marshes. There, some cranes spend the year-round, and it is rumored by some persons, and sworn to by the Cajuns, that they have nested there for many years.

WHAT IS LEFT OF the flocks of thousands and thousands of whoopers that formerly crossed the Plains twice a year in passage between their nesting grounds of Canada and the Prairie states, and their winter home in Mexico and the Gulf region? A sorry remnant at best—probably not more than two hundred birds. They formerly wintered by the hundreds in the lagoon country of northeastern Mexico, but none has been reported from that region in recent years. As far as is known, the only important wintering grounds are now those in the White Lake region of southern Louisiana, and in the Aransas Refuge and vicinity on the south coast of Texas. It so happens that only 15 birds (13 adults and 2 immatures) spent the winter of 1941-42 on the refuge; and persons who searched the Texas bays and marshes for other groups were unsuccessful.

EVEN ON THESE coastal marshes, once a safe haven for wintering cranes, the birds were threatened. Bombing and machine-gun ranges for Army Air Corps use have been created on the barrier islands because “the areas are isolated and comparatively few people will be affected by their use.” Cranes, unfortunately, have not yet come to fear the target shooting boatmen on the Intra-coastal Waterway which invades the heart of their feeding grounds. Exploration for oil and the drilling of wells in the marshlands and bays also continue. Are the birds to be driven from their last stronghold ?

IN THE PAST, some toll of cranes was taken by angry farmers of the Great Plains who resented the birds’ fondness for sprouting wheat. No doubt others were killed simply out of curiosity—the fate of many a large, spectacular species. On the prairies of central Texas, a favorite stopping point in migration, cranes were once held in favor as birds for the pot. According to John K. Strecker, the noted Texas ornithologist, the whooper was a favorite game fowl in McLennan County, Texas, in the middle of the last century. “It was only after the wild turkey, prairie chicken and whooping crane began to become scarce,” he wrote, “that the bobwhite came into repute as a game bird.” (Quail must have been considered small fry in those days!)

MARKET HUNTERS IN Texas did kill and sell some whoopers but favored the sand-hill, a vegetarian, as a better tasting bird. The bugle crane was considered inferior because “it ate sea food and tasted fishy.” However, ranchers in the Blackjacks did vary their diet of frijoles and sowbelly with crane meat. One man, knowing of my interest in the species, assured me that his family never shot more than one every week or so. He then., added as an after-thought: “I wonder where they all went to?”

PERSECUTION BY MAN and reduction in nesting areas due to drought and drainage, has brought the species to a low point from which it may never recover. Probably some of the adults we now find are old, sterile birds incapable of producing young. There are few of them left and the gauntlet they fly twice each year is a hazardous one. True, they are protected by international treaties and some help is given them on wintering grounds, but little pot-shooting here and there could easily wipe out this conspicuous bird.

IS THE OLD WHOOPER doomed? What can be done to help this bird ? For one thing, we need a complete life history study that will point out the specific requirements to save this species from oblivion. This approach to the problem is fundamental; it has already been used by the National Audubon Society in the case of the roseate spoonbill and the ivory-billed woodpecker. We know there is need for additional patrol, for an educational campaign to be carried out in the vicinity of the birds’ wintering grounds. The Canadian breeding grounds are now mainly restricted to southern Mackenzie and northern Saskatchewan, and possibly sections of Alberta; however, the exact location of nesting areas is shrouded in mystery. The summer homes of these cranes must be found and a study made to determine factors limiting nesting success and rearing of young. The information will be basic to wise conservation and management. Possibilities for a refuge on the resting grounds in Nebraska where the birds stop in migration are now being explored. It will be necessary for conservationists to muster every available resource in the last faint hope of saving this crane.

MAY THE OLD WHOOPER continue to trumpet down through the years! Though the outlook for his survival is dark, may the day never come when the last bugler blows taps for his race. ~ James Osborne Stevenson, 1943

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