Whooper dies, dropping flock to 263

Mar 4, 2010 | Victoria Advocate | Related Press

AUSTWELL – A juvenile whooping crane has died, notching down the total flock count of the endangered birds to 263, an Aransas National Wildlife Refuge spokeswoman said.

Vicki Muller, a refuge specialist, said it has yet to release its monthly aerial census. Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator, last conducted the count on Jan. 7, when 264 birds were accounted for.

One juvenile in Medford, Okla. was accounted for in the total, Muller said.

“Times are still tough, but the birds are being resourceful and finding food elsewhere,” she said.

Refuge biologists are putting together a feeding plan for the cranes in case food supply becomes so low that the staff would have to supplement their diets.

Corn feed and crane chow, a high-calorie food that is fed to cranes in zoos, are two options the refuge may explore if necessary. Muller said different parameters are written into the feeding plan.

“We’re trying to make tangible things that we can point to to be our triggering mechanism so that we know we need to feed the cranes,” she said. “We want to make sure everything we do is scientific.”

But Muller said none of that criteria has been met, and the cranes are eating well although blue crab populations, the birds’ top prey and what nourish them most, remain low.

The refuge, however, has been doing prescribed burns to roast acorns, which the birds eat, and remove vegetation so they may find other prey.

Some of the animals the cranes may eat, especially when blue crabs are hard to find, include snakes, frogs, insects and lizards, Muller said.

“They’re pretty opportunistic animals,” she said. “They will eat whatever they can get their beaks on really.”

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