HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Expert thinks more cranes died in 2009

Dec 6, 2011 | Houston Chronicle by Colin McDonald | TAP In The News

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CORPUS CHRISTI — The biologist whose intimate knowledge of the endangered whooping crane has made him almost a father figure to the flock testified Tuesday that the number of birds that died in the hard winter of 2008-09 was probably higher than the 23 he counted.

In his 29 years studying the birds at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, their winter home, Tom Stehn said it’s not difficult to figure out when an adult or chick is missing.

“These cranes are like my kids,” he told the courtroom where the birds are at the center of a federal lawsuit.

The case, being heard by Judge Janis Jack without a jury, could upend the allocation of water in two major rivers if it can be proved that the birds are harmed by insufficient freshwater reaching the Gulf bays and estuaries where they feed. The winter of 2008-09 was, like this year, drought-stricken and the blue crab that is the birds’ favorite food was in short supply because the marshes were highly saline.

Stehn thinks his report of 23 deaths was low because he did not have an accurate count of the “sub adults,” 1 to 4 years old, that don’t defend a territory but roam around the refuge and surrounding bays and marshland.

He said his bird counts are an actual census, not surveys with population estimates, with an accuracy rate of 97 to 99 percent.

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