Saving North America’s Tallest Bird

Photograph by Joel Sartore/
Photograph by Joel Sartore/
Photograph by Joel Sartore/
Photograph by the International Crane Foundation

Saving North America’s Tallest Bird

Whooping crane recovery is one of conservation's great successes, but suddenly there are new and frightening threats.

By Ted Williams
Published: July-August 2013

On the cold, misty morning of February 12, 2013, Iliana Pena, conservation director for Audubon Texas, and I are trying to feel good about the future of whooping cranes. In Captain Tommy Moore's metal birding boat, Skimmer, we are cruising the Intracoastal Waterway inches from the western shore of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. With us is Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the refuge, thereby protecting the 47,200-acre Blackjack Peninsula between Aransas and San Antonio bays. Since then it's grown to 115,000 acres and been named a Globally Important Bird Area. Today the refuge helps sustain somewhere between 178 and 362 whooping cranes, up from 15 in 1941. The Fish and Wildlife Service thinks the number is probably around 257 but can't say for sure because it has come up with a controversial new system of estimating rather than counting. These birds migrate from breeding grounds in northern Canada to wintering habitat here in south Texas.

George Archibald & Gee Whiz. W2
Photograph by the International Crane Foundation
Following this piece on whooping cranes in the May-June issue, a loyal reader registered disappointment that I hadn't mentioned the tremendous contributions of George Archibald and the International Crane Foundation in establishing the captive-reared flock that now migrates between Wisconsin and Florida (see "The Man Who Saves Cranes,"). So I'll take this opportunity to credit Archibald and the foundation for their heroic work. And special thanks to the foundation for being part of the successful lawsuit that has given the wild population a fighting chance by protecting the vital freshwater inflow to their winter habitat. T.W.
A second population of about 100 whoopers, started with captive-reared birds fed by volunteers and aviculturists in crane costumes and imprinted to follow ultralight aircraft, migrates between Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin and Chassahowitzha and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges on Florida's west coast. They're doing well in the wild but reproduction is low. A non-migratory flock established at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in south-central Florida seems to have failed, but another of about two dozen in southwest Louisiana shows great promise.

During the past 70 or so years the naturally migrating population has increased at an average of 4.5 percent annually. Still, Pena and I have a bad feeling about the onslaught of new threats in Texas--climate change that is flooding salt marshes and bringing habitat-wrecking black mangroves up from the south, and coastal development, drought, and water withdrawals from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers that have raised salinity in bays and estuaries, thereby killing the blue crabs and other invertebrates that sustain the cranes. A recent federal court decision may have resolved the water-withdrawal issue, but persistent drought, possibly related to climate change, remains a concern.


Even on dark days, birders have to work to sustain dark moods in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Opening the show for us and eliciting smiles from all hands are reddish egrets dashing around the marsh, hopping and changing direction like Keystone Kops. A seaside sparrow carols from his spartina perch. Great blue herons in astonishing profusion hunch, puff, and preen. Ospreys hover and perch on buoys. Great and snowy egrets stalk salt ponds and scull overhead. White pelicans in tight clusters roost on sandbars. Brown pelicans fold their wings and dive. A northern harrier wobbles low over the marsh. Patrolling the wet flats are dunlins, marbled godwits, willets, long-billed curlews, dowitchers, oystercatchers, avocets, greater yellowlegs. A white-tailed hawk amiably shares a roost with seven great blue herons. Bottlenosed dolphins roll in our wake and bow wave. Are we really getting paid for this? Pena and I ask ourselves.

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Author Profile

Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Nice article, but it does not

Nice article, but it does not give enough credit to the Canadians that actually found the first birds (Bill Fuller, mammalogist at Univ of Alberta) and transferred the eggs for many years (Ernie Kuyt, CWS) from nests at Wood Buffalo NP for captive propagation. This is chronicled in: A passion for wildlife: the history of the CWS by J. Burnett.
And there is a very detailed description of who found what when at:

Four of us girlfriends from

Four of us girlfriends from TX and PA are coming in March 2014 to Rockport and Aransas for the whooping cranes and hope to go on Captain Tommy's Adventure. You can count on us to help. Can't wait.

I visited the Aransas refuge

I visited the Aransas refuge in February of 2011, just to see the whoopers. I lucked out and saw one pair that day from the high observation tower. I have mostly followed their story via the Wisconsin breeding program and visiting the gulf coast annually. This was my first visit to Aransas; it is dismaying to learn how little attention they receive. The local communities should better understand the economic value of birders! We travel far and wide to engage in our sport AND we spend lots of money locally. Get with it Texas; you are missing a great opportunity. From an ardent birder based in the Midwest.

Totally agree with all other

Totally agree with all other commentators on this article! Hope to get to the Aransas NWR myself, someday, and tour the areas where the wild/original flock of Whoopers hang out! Would also love to go up to Wood Buffalo Park in Canada to see where they nest each year during the spring/summer season! Have a passport now to do that, too!
Thank you, Ted Williams, for this article, and keeping the public alert to what's happening with our precious Whoopers

I LOVE the new larger

I LOVE the new larger pictures. I am sharing them with all the children I know. They are terrific for kids to "Show and Tell" at school, especially when we can read some of the articles and history of the birds. THANKS! Nancy M. WA coast

Magnificent birds the

Magnificent birds the Whoopers, good work!

Every birder should read

Every birder should read Peter Matthiessen's book, BIRDS OF HEAVEN. It's about cranes - all of them, worldwide - their natural history, their habitat, their plight - if not just for love of the birds, then for his most excellent writing!

Whooping Cranes

My biggest question, after reading Ted Williams' article in the July August 2013 Audubon magazine, was WHY the USFWS cannot continue to do the accurate fly-over counts in the same way that Tom Stehn did it for 29 years? If it's not broke... Any count that gives the US people an average "from 192 to 316, but maybe around 254" is not a good outlay of our hard-earned cash and tax revenue....

I also see another major question: Why SHOULDN'T each type of wildlife on the Endangered Species list have a personal "minder" (a small group/team of principle watchers/researchers dedicated to that species?) Anyone facing retirement would not have to worry about transferring their knowledge before leaving. That seems to be a great way to ensure that knowledge acquired that spans centuries gets used and passed on to the next generation.

As we can see by how long it has taken to ensure the cranes' survival to now, and, that a court battle can take over three years to be resolved, that longevity and knowledge transfer can only be an asset in the overall management of an Endangered Species. The visibility of a 5-ft tall very white bird in a low marsh would be easy to count, VS a snail darter who lives in a single river, or a bird that nests in the high Arctic, or a mammal that lives in boreal forests...

Operation Migration Savings Whoopers

Go to Operation Migration online and see what their trykes are doing to save the Whooping Cranes. Can't help but support their mighty efforts and success.

Why no mention of George Archibad and ICF?

It is great to see an article about one of the most amazing North American birds – the Whooping Crane. I was dismayed however that there was no reference to Dr. George Archibald and the International Crane Foundation (ICF). Dr. Archibald is one of the premier scientists in the field of cranes in the world and has worked extensively with the Whooping Crane restoration project since it’s beginning. ICF has been working to preserve the 15 species of cranes for over 40 years and is one of the most significant and longest players in the preservation and restoration of the Whooping Crane ( I hope you rectify this error of omission in the magazines next edition.

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