Saving North America’s Tallest Bird

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

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.

Another pair forages on either side of a rust-colored chick. Over the next hour we encounter eight more adults, including a pair no more than 90 feet off our port bow. One has a blue band on its right leg and a radio transmitter with a downward-pointing antenna on its left leg. Harrell explains that the silver square is a solar collector that recharges the battery. A few more dark days like this and radio signals will cease. Then, with the first sun, Harrell and his team will get a big data dump.

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.


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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Sandhill Cranes in Florida

I question the statement that Whooping Cranes are North America's tallest birds at 5 feet. As Sandhills have become more common throughout Florida neighborhoods (they have sure learned to adapt to lost environment!), I have noticed several that clearly exceed five feet in height in my neighborhood. While I realize that these examples may be oddities among Sandhills, has anyone else noticed that as Sandhills have become more common they have also seemed to increase in height steadily over the last thirty years. This is a bird that has really adapted well to lost environment. I have two mated pairs, one in my neighborhood and another next to my office, that return each year to nest and raise their young (usually one to two chicks survive annually and some years we've had up to three survive). Man-made storm water retention ponds seem to be their preference and the fact that we have professional trappers remove nuisance alligators seems to be much appreciated by our Sandhills.

The Alberta Provincial

The Alberta Provincial government is issuing permits to Tar sands oil companies for operations throughout the Wood Buffalo area threatening the Cranes' breeding habitat.

Whopping cranes

Have always wanted to go to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge - so your article has inspired a trip this coming winter. That article had the most beautiful description of birds and excellent history of the ongoing difficulties in past and present environmental habitat protection, We should all take heed - as the earth is under tremendous stress - what affects the birds affects all.
Thank you for this article. Donna Z. and Ken B. from Alberta.


My parents wintered in Texas for 15 years...from Minnesota...and one of their favorite places was the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. My kids and I would go down over Christmas break(I was a teacher) and explored that area multi times. It's definitely worth a visit. I hope the Whoopers survive all the stresses. Magnificent birds.

Any life form that has to

Any life form that has to depend on the government in Texas for survival is in big trouble.

Ted Williams

Just love birders who write this well!

Whooping cranes

So interesting to read articles like this. Hopefully enough people will appreciate the wildlife enough to do something for the cranes. They have come so far in the years since 1940s....keep it going. Marjorie Ewell, Cape Coral Florida

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