Texas Coast Welcomes Whooping Cranes

Record numbers of whooping cranes have returned to the Texas coast for the winter. As few as 15 of the birds were seen in Texas in the 1940s. This year, 237 birds made the trek to Texas from Canada.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And here's a story of an improving environment. This year a record number of whooping cranes migrated from the northwest territory of Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. The record was 237 whooping cranes. That is up from just 21 in 1944.

When it comes to endangered species, the whooping crane comeback has been a happy success story. NPR's Wade Goodwyn traveled to Aransas Bay, Texas.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

WADE GOODWYN: It's 7:25 and the sun is rising over the water at Fulton Harbor. About a dozen sleepy-eyed, soon-to-be passengers are walking up the gangway of Tommy Moore's tour boat.

Mr. TOMMY MOORE (Tour Boat Operator): Good morning, ladies. Welcome.

MARY: I'm Mary. I was last year.

Mr. MOORE: Good, good to see you. Let me have your pass.

GOODWYN: It's warm - 65 degrees. Happy expectation flows out of the group. Birders love to tick species off their life list. The rarer the species the better. And within the hour they're going to see one of the most uncommon and exceptional birds in the world. And it's not just the whooping crane, this is one of the best places in America to see birds.

Pintails, ibis, hooded mergansers, black-bellied clovers, sandpiper...

Mr. MOORE: And if you look up here at 11:00, there's a couple of American oystercatchers sitting on top of the reef there. I think they kind of got robbed on the name. It's not a big deal to catch an oyster but it's a big deal to open one.

GOODWYN: Before Europeans came to North America there were more than 10,000 whooping cranes from the Rockies to Hudson Bay. But the American farmer drained the marshes of the upper Midwest, wiping out their nesting grounds. And hunters shot the big birds for their feathers and out of simple curiosity.

By World War II, there were just four nesting female whooping cranes left in the world, found here on this 35-mils stretch of Texas coast. Six decades later, the only wild migrating flock of whooping cranes are all direct descendants of those four females.

Mr. MOORE: Whooping cranes come her to eat blue crab. That's the number one diet of the whooping crane. If it doesn't have good blue crab numbers to eat while it's here in Aransas, it will not have a successful nesting season the following year.

GOODWYN: The whooping cranes make their winter home here in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a habitat fiercely protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Moore quietly maneuvers up to the shore, so close to a family of three cranes even he is impressed.

Mr. MOORE: This is great look at these cranes up here. Look how dark this baby is. That baby will follow around behind the mama begging for food. That peep you hear is that baby.

GOODWYN: Five-feet tall, stunningly white with black wingtips, they are the tallest bird in North America. Whooping cranes take their name from their call, an astounding trumpeting that can be heard two miles away and sounds like a French horn player on LSD.

(Soundbite of whooping crane calling)

GOODWYN: Later that day, Tom Stehn is stalking a wounded crane through the salt marsh. Stehn is the whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he thinks the young crane, just a year old, has somehow dislocated a hip.

Mr. TOM STEHN (Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): It's really a severe limp, so severe that it's really almost a hop. But it is holding the leg normally and has a range of motion. So we think the problem is something with the hip.

GOODWYN: Through a powerful scope, Stehn has got the wounded crane in sight.

Mr. STEHN: It seems to be getting food. It looks pretty good other than the limp. I mean the body condition looks very good. So it's really hanging in there.

GOODWYN: The cranes are very territorial. Each family wants between 200 and 500 acres all to themselves. With their powerful voices, they call to each other in the marsh; I'm over here so you stay over there. Well, I'm over here so you stay over there. Like prima donnas with oversized estates.

Tom Stehn walks back to his pickup proud of the government's success with the whooping cranes.

Mr. STEHN: To think that a species was absolutely on the brink of extinction with just a few adult females producing at most one chick a year and to have a comeback so that there are over 200 birds today in the flock is phenomenal. And it shows you what can be accomplished if man steps in to protect wildlife.

GOODWYN: In April, the whooping cranes will take the sky and fly 2,600 miles to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. And by Christmas, Tom Stehn will be up counting from above, hoping the only wild migrating whooping crane flock in the world has pushed past 250.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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