Whooping Cranes & Drought


Photo: Alan Murphy

The gulf coast of Texas is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit in February. My wife likes the warmer weather, we both like the whooping cranes.

The stretch of coastline from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to Rockport provides the winter home for the only naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes in the world. Their summer home lies some 2500 miles away in Wood Buffalo National Park located in Northern Alberta. This flock teetered on the brink of extinction in 1941-42. Only 16 birds made it to Aransas that winter. Their numbers have slowly climbed up to nearly 300. The most recent estimate puts that number at approximately 245 cranes.

Last year, many of the cranes were relatively easy to see close up. A boat ride on the Skimmer piloted by Captain Tommy Moore brought one within hundreds of feet of cranes along the edges of the peninsula. This year, we could see them but not as many and not as close up. The cranes are more dispersed largely due to the extreme drought that Texas endured this past year. That means less fresh water from the Guadalupe River basin.



Less fresh water means higher salinity levels and that means, fewer blue crabs for the cranes—their most important food source during the winter and vital for their trip north and successful breeding season. The cranes have had to expand their range in search of other food such as wolfberries.

The refuge has also been carrying out prescribed burns of thousands of acres in order to clear out underbrush so that the cranes can eat the roasted acorns.

Still it was great to see them again. Many people come in order to check them off on their birder’s “life list.” But there’s more to just seeing them as isolated creatures, as one more species added to our tabulation of the total number of species we’ve personally identified. What makes seeing the whooping cranes in Aransas special is that it provides a chance to see them in their habitat.


Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

As Aldo Leopold noted in his “Marshland Elegy,” cranes and marshes belong together. Each is incomplete without the other. In a similar vein, Wendell Berry also observes how places shape creatures, and more importantly, how each particular place shapes each individual creature (Life is a Miracle, Citizenship Papers). And thousands of years ago, Psalm 104 also observed how God made suitable habitations for each creature and how each creature was uniquely made for life in that habitat. And so in Aransas, they fit one another, the whooping cranes and the gulf coast wetlands.

Addendum: in addition to the naturally migrating western flock, an eastern migratory flock from Wisconsin to Florida has only been recently established since about 2001 by the Whooping Crane Easter Partnership (WCEP) in conjunction with the International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration.

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