A Mystery Solved Leads to a Recovering Species by Mark Klym

The rapid collapse of the Whooping crane population in Texas resulted in an equally rapid response from the birding community. By 1937, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge had been purchased, the staff of which included Robert Porter Allen, widely reputed as "the man who saved the Whooping crane." Allen, who had previous experience working with the Roseate spoonbill in Florida and Cuba, was hired by the National Audubon Society to spearhead a recovery effort for the Whooping crane. He spent several summers searching for the nesting grounds for this bird, and eventually was instrumental in protecting their nesting grounds.

Allen started by following the birds north in the spring. Having monitored them through the winter, he was ready and, when the first birds took to the air, he climbed into his old station wagon and began "following" them north. His trip north was preceded by a media release, and Allen was surprised to find that, as he went north, his arrival in each community was met with someone searching him out to say "I just saw Whooping cranes!" A good number of these were accurate reports, but the reports dropped off as he approached the Canadian border. What he was told in this area was that people were seeing these birds much farther north. Despite the common knowledge of the day that these birds nest in the grasslands of the border region between Canada and the United States, Allen took on a three year search of the northern parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta, even crossing into the Northwest Territories.

In 1954, a young forest ranger returning from firefighting in the Yukon Territory looked down as he was flying over the border between the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan. On the shores of the pothole lakes he saw large white birds, and the mystery of where these birds nested was found. It took Allen two more summers before he was able to see these birds on their nesting grounds, but the framework was in place to protect nesting Whooping cranes.

Listed as endangered in 1967, Whooping cranes have seen a number of attempts to stabilize and recover their population. The down listing guidelines set out by the recovery team gives two scenarios in which this bird might be considered recovered enough that it can be removed from the Endangered Species List:

  1. Forty nesting pairs in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo National Park flock plus two additional flocks with at least 25 nesting pairs, or
  2. One thousand birds in the Aransas flock with at least 75 nesting pairs

The Aramsas NWR flock is doing well, and the focus has been on creating and maintaining additional flocks. These efforts have included placing Whooping crane eggs under Sandhill crane hens for the hens to raise, training Whooping crane chicks to follow an ultralight plane during migration and two attempts to establish a residential flock near the southern coast within the historic range of these birds.

In 2013, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department introduced a new citizen science project with the goal of learning more about winter Whooping cranes that were overwintering outside the traditional area immediately surrounding Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. That summer brought several Whooping cranes spending the summer months in Texas as well -- coming over from an experimental flock in Louisiana. Volunteers provide us with information our biologists could not collect on their own. To learn more about the Texas Whooper Watch please visit http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/texas_nature_trackers/whooper-watch/.

Mark Klym is an Information Specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, working out of the Wildlife Diversity Program in Austin.

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