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

While whoopers didn't adapt well to the demise of North America's shallow seas, they are showing some adaptability to current changing habitat. Some birds now winter as far away from the refuge as Granger Lake, 200 miles to the north. Inland, they subsist on frogs, snakes, crawfish, insects, and even corn. The Fish and Wildlife Service is upbeat about the bird's chances, calling the increased use of nontraditional wintering areas "great news." Pena is less sanguine. "I'm glad they're adaptable," she says. "But are they doing well off the refuge or just leaving a stressful situation? And the public's unfamiliarity with the birds far inland worries me. Sandhill cranes can be legally hunted, and whoopers sometimes mix with them."

On both counts Pena has reason for concern. Deaths by gunshot just since 2009 include what had been the introduced flock's first successful breeding female (killed in Indiana), three juveniles killed in Georgia, two birds in Alabama, an adult in South Dakota, an adult in Louisiana, and a juvenile in Texas. And in the winter of 2008 2009 at least 23 cranes, including 16 juveniles, perished when excessive freshwater withdrawals by the state's Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority spiked salinity in bays and marshes, wiping out invertebrate prey. Recovered carcasses were emaciated.

That winter Felipe Chavez-Ramirez of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, who completed his doctoral dissertation on whoopers in 1996 and has been working on them ever since, could see that something was dreadfully wrong. "The birds were off their territories and looking for alternative food sources or freshwater," he says. "That's highly unusual. We saw very few captures of blue crabs, which was troubling. And Tom Stehn [the whooping crane coordinator who retired in 2011] documented heavy mortality; that was significant because in many winters there's no mortality. We also saw chicks by themselves--very odd. On normal years parents feed their young, but we saw cranes aggressively keeping food from their chicks."

So in March 2010 the Aransas Project--an eclectic alliance of citizens, businesses, and organizations, including Audubon Texas and the International Crane Foundation, alarmed at the destruction of habitat that sustains whoopers and humans--sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the entity that authorizes water diversions. Intervening for the state were the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and the Texas Chemical Council. The Texas Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau, both of which can be counted on to be on the wrong side of every environmental issue, attempted to intervene but were denied.

The behavior of the defendants appalled those who witnessed it, including the presiding U.S. District Court judge, Janis Graham Jack. For example, just as she was about to write her decision, a defense attorney (now banned from practicing in her courtroom) untruthfully informed her that the case had been settled. She therefore stopped working on it. "I don't like to be snookered," she declared when proceedings resumed. "I was told emphatically that the case had settled. . . . I am not happy with the behavior of anybody [with the defense]." That bogus report delayed a decision for about eight months.

Tom Stehn, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who managed the cranes for 29 years, knows far more about them than anyone else, but his superiors wouldn't permit him to testify. Although this left the birds without their most knowledgeable defender, the decision was understandable because of the litigious blitzkrieg from groups seeking Endangered Species Act status for every species, studied or unstudied, from northern steptoe pyrg snails to Cooper's cave amphipods (and, of course, collecting attorney fees from U.S. taxpayers along the way). If the service allowed its biologists to be used by every plaintiff, they'd spend their careers testifying in court.

But after Tom Stehn retired, Judge Jack subpoenaed him. Jim Blackburn, lead attorney for the Aransas Project, hadn't had a chance to work with the witness and had no idea what he might say. When Stehn took the stand Blackburn had to ask him whether 23 cranes had died that year. The ensuing 40 seconds were both the most frightening and elating Blackburn has experienced in a courtroom. "Tom hesitated," he recalls, "and my heart fell to the floor. And then he said, 'I actually think more birds than that died, but 23 were all I could verify.' " Later Judge Jack allowed that she'd been impressed by the plaintiffs' experts.

"The defense hammered me for hours," says Stehn. "How could I possibly know that 23 whooping cranes had died when I didn't find all the carcasses? It's very simple. Ninety-nine percent of the time chicks stay with their parents the entire winter. Day after day you've got two adults on their territory with their chick. Then there are only two adults. There's no other explanation-- the chick is dead. Finally, the judge said, 'Mr. Stehn's the expert. He's been doing this for 29 years, and we have to believe him.' "

During the delay caused by the defendants' false tale of settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a report touting a crane-survey protocol it had devised to replace Stehn's census. In their eagerness to promote the new protocol, the authors made the tactical blunder of at least appearing to denigrate Stehn's method. They reported that they'd reviewed his techniques and "identified multiple modifications that would improve the survey's scientific rigor and value."

The defendants pounced on the report like a fox on a vole. "This is a real game-changer," effused Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, to the Houston Chronicle. "The report points out the shortcomings in the methodology, and that was the basis of their case."

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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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