Whooping Crane Recovery

Introduction:

An adult whooping crane stands about five feet tall and is spectacular in flight and on the ground. It is unusual in that it defends a territory both on the summer nesting grounds as well as its wintering grounds on the coast of Texas. Whooping cranes make the 2,400-mile migration twice a year, north in the spring and south in the fall. This fierce and beautiful bird is also highly endangered. Whooping cranes once lived all along the Gulf Coast and up the East Coast into the Carolinas, but by 1941 the population was down to fifteen birds. The causes for this near extinction event were not unusual: loss of habitat, primarily conversion of wetlands to agriculture, and persecution by hunters; both exacerbated by the animal's low rate of reproduction. Since the 1940s the whooping crane has made a slow recovery and is now back up to 195 birds in the one remaining wild population centered at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. A captive breeding program has allowed two more populations based in Florida to be set up, but whoopers are not out of danger. Their habitat is still subject to human encroachment, they still take losses from in-flight collisions with wires and fences, they are faced with diseases to which they have no immunity, and one hurricane or oil spill in the wrong place at the wrong time could inflict major losses to the population.

We spoke with Tom Stehn of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge about the natural history and the recovery of whooping cranes.

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