KAVU VICTORIA

Whooping Cranes Part 1: Struggling to Survive

Mar 4, 2010 | KAVU Victoria by Stephanie Kusy | TAP In The News

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The whooping crane is one of the rarest birds in North America. Every winter they migrate 2500 miles from Canada to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Austwell. Currently 263 endangered whooping cranes reside at the refuge, and the numbers seem to be dwindling.

In the freshwater and brackish marshes of south Texas, a distinct call rings across the marsh. It is the whooping crane, Grus Americana, the rarest crane species. They are the tallest bird in North America, standing nearly 5 feet tall, with a 7 foot wingspan. From mid-November to April, they spend their time at the refuge.

The refuge is one of the only places one can see a whooping crane. The rest are in captivity. They will remain on the endangered species list until the population increases to more than a 1000 — a tough task for refuge manager Dan Alonso and others pushing for conservation.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Alonso said. “What are some of the problems they’re facing? That’s a long journey from Canada to south Texas. There’s lots of issues along the flight path whether it’s development disturbances. It’s known we lose about eight percent of the population during migration.”

Migration isn’t the only difficult task for these birds. They must also learn to adapt to the often harsh and ever changing conditions of
south Texas.

“Things are grim this year because the effects of the drought are still looming,” Alonso said. “The drought was so significant.”

Last year the number of whooping cranes who left the refuge in the spring was fewer than those that had arrived in the winter. While the
birds are omnivorous, eating whatever they can, their number one prey base at the refuge is the blue crab.

“We recently learned blue crabs have a very low tolerance for changes in the pH,” Alonso said. “They can only tolerate between six
and eight on the pH scale, seven being neutral. That’s pretty tight.”

The quantity and quality of the water in the bays are directly affecting the coastal ecosystem. When no fresh water flows into the
bays from either the rivers or rain, the blue crab cannot survive because the bays become too salty. This leaves the cranes with no
major food source. It’s a problem that’s contributing to the decline of these iconic birds — a problem that could one day play a role in
their extinction.

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