Saving North America’s Tallest Bird
Whooping crane recovery is one of conservation's great successes, but suddenly there are new and frightening threats.
Although whoopers are the tallest birds on the continent (five feet high when they stand erect), they dwell in low vegetation, better to spot predators. So the refuge's high, brushy western shore, rife with bobcats, coyotes, and feral hogs, is a write-off. But the vast eastern marsh is whooper heaven. Dominant plants include pickleweed, spartina, and inland salt grass. Early in the season cranes feast on wolfberries--fleshy red fruits clustered on water-tolerant shrubs.
"Whoopers," announces Captain Moore over the loudspeaker. There are two adults 100 yards out. They are nearly a third bigger than the nearby great egrets and great blue herons, bigger even than sandhill cranes. Through our binoculars we can see their yellow eyes, red-black cheeks, and bald, scarlet crowns. It seems impossible that feathers can be this white. Their tail plumage is short but luxuriant, pointing down unlike those of so many other species. They strut and probe, lifting their black legs like dressage horses. It's easy to see why these birds have become North America's inspirational symbols of conservation, capturing our hearts and minds.
During last year's severe drought that data showed that many birds had left the refuge in search of food, freshwater to drink, or both. "We've had some rain this year," Harrell says, "but freshwater is still limited. A lot of the ponds they use are dry. We're trying to rework some old wells." Today these cranes will have to fly only about a mile for freshwater. When they're forced to fly 10 or 15 miles they burn calories they need for spring migration.
Whoopers flourished through much of the Pleistocene, when shallow seas and adjacent marshes covered large areas of North America. But when this wealth of habitat shrank, so did the population. Unlike their close relatives, the ubiquitous sandhill cranes, whose current population totals more than half a million, whoopers didn't adapt well. By the year 1500 there were probably no more than 10,000. In 1922, after massive wetland drainage and wanton shooting, whoopers abandoned their only known nesting site in Saskatchewan.
But migrating chicks continued to be seen, so there had to be another nesting site. Unless it was found and protected, the species was doomed. After years of grueling, life-threatening exploration by foot, canoe, and floatplane, Audubon ornithologist Robert Allen found the site at Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories. His remarkable feat is documented in Kathleen Kaska's book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane (University Press of Florida, 2012).
When the observations of migrating birds slipped to eight between 1941 and 1943, Allen described the situation as "a four-alarm fire." So Audubon initiated public education, getting coverage in TV news segments, newspapers, game commission magazines, and farm journals. The exposure ignited a national fascination with whoopers, but with it came a feeding frenzy by the press resulting in a torrent of misinformation that Audubon had to correct. Among the examples Kaska cites: Time reported that hunting and harassment had forced the birds north, where they were ill-adapted to cope with Canadian weather. And Maclean's, Canada's weekly news magazine, outraged tax reformers by wrongly reporting that the failed searches had cost $75,000. "The total amount of each taxpayer's direct contribution to our search . . . wouldn't cover the cost of a penny postcard to their congressmen," wrote Allen in an Audubon report.
From the beginning, Wood Buffalo National Park had been high on Allen's list of suspects. He'd flown the general area of the nesting site for three weeks and over it on June 25, 1947, but a blinding storm had forced him back. Finally, on May 22, 1955, following a reliable tip from a pilot on forest-fi re patrol, Allen looked down from a helicopter on the sight he'd been searching for and dreaming about--a whooper on her nest. Thanks largely to Allen, air, water, and land access to breeding habitat is now restricted. And a team made up of U.S. and Canadian scientists oversees recovery and recommends policies to the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.