A pair of whooping cranes in Jefferson County. They were one of two couples to nest in southeast Texas this year – for the first time in recent history.
James Gentz leases farmland in Jefferson County, where he grows rice and raises lobsters in flat wetlands.
Two years ago a pair of whooping cranes started hanging around in his fields.
“You are beautiful to look at,” he said. “You just sat and watched them while you were fishing for crabs.”
Panting cranes are almost five feet tall and have fluffy white feathers with red tint on their faces. They are one of the rarest – and tallest birds – in North America.
Gentz said he felt lucky to have the endangered birds on his land.
And this year they did something very special: They built a nest. You were one of two panting crane pairs to nest in southeast Texas this year.
According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, it is said to be the first time since the 19th century that wilting cranes nest in Texas.
Wade Harrell, the Whooping Crane Coordinator at US Fish & Wildlife, said it was a huge win for conservationists.
“It really is a golden opportunity for someone who works in conservation to see an endangered species like this building a nest and hopefully breeding in a place it hasn’t been in generations,” he said.
The spring trade, habitat loss, and the lack of hunting laws in the early 1900s all contributed to the decline in birds, Harrell added.
“They were caught from all angles in relation to actually catching individual birds,” he said.
In the 1940s there were only 16 whooping cranes left in all of North America. They were listed as an endangered species when the Endangered Species Act was signed in 1973.
There are now more than 600 whooping cranes in the wild.
A panting crane nest in Jefferson County. Panting crane nests can span 3 feet.
The largest herd nests in Canada and winters in Texas at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. But the birds that nest in southeast Texas are part of another non-migratory flock that was reintroduced to Louisiana in 2011.
Sara Zimorski, wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, worked with this herd from the start. She said one of the reasons she reintroduced the flock is because having multiple crane populations is helping to reduce the risk – you don’t want to put all of your Keuchle crane eggs in one basket, so to speak.
“If there was a catastrophic storm in the late season, if there was some kind of catastrophic oil or chemical spill, it could be very devastating for that one population of whooping cranes,” said Zimorski. “But if you have other populations of whooping cranes in different locations, you still have whooping cranes elsewhere – you haven’t lost all of your cranes.”
This is also one of the reasons conservationists are happy that the Louisiana herd is expanding its range to include southeastern Texas.
In the past 10 years, the Louisiana flock has grown to more than 70 adult birds.
“We made good progress,” said Zimorski.
But there were also challenges. For one, a total of 14 birds were shot by humans.
“We assume that there will be birds that will not survive,” said Zimorski. “But what we didn’t expect is that we had a lot of mortality because people were shooting at the cranes and killing them.”
Another challenge in population recovery is that whooping cranes are slow to reproduce. The birds usually lay two eggs in their nest, but often only one survives. And for newer couples, it can take a few tries to successfully raise a chick.
A camera view of a panting crane in Louisiana. Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, reaching up to 5 feet tall.
“We have to be patient with whooping cranes because everything is slow with them, it takes a long time,” said Zimorski.
The Louisiana flock often nests twice in a season, but even that is not a guarantee of success. Unfortunately, although the pairs in Texas both nest twice this year, Zimorski said neither had managed to raise a chick.
Gentz, the Jefferson County farmer, said this week’s storm threw more than 7 inches of rain on his fields. When he looked for the cranes, they were gone.
“It was very disappointing to me. I mean, I just almost had tears,” he said. “I was just so excited that they nest.”
But Zimorski said they will try again next year.
“Every little experience they gain helps them in the future,” she said.
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