Screaming cranes haven’t nestled in Texas since the late 19th century – until now.
A pair of the great birds nest in Chambers County on private land about 65 miles east of Houston off Interstate 10. They are not part of the migrating flock of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, but instead come from an introduced, non-migratory flock in Louisiana’s White Lake Conservation Area .
Think about it. A pair of whooping cranes nesting in Texas for the first time in perhaps 140 years. The Chambers County landowner, who will remain anonymous so the nest will not be disturbed, told me that the cranes have been nesting on his property for four years. (Bird watchers who learned about the cranes this year flocked to the nesting site.)
Whooping cranes are the largest birds in North America, with a height of 5 feet, snow-white body, a red crown, black face, red cheeks, black wing tips, and a long, spear-like beak.
Juveniles have a mix of tawny and white feathers.
Adults weigh about 16 pounds and fly on a wingspan of 8 feet at a speed of 35 miles per hour.
They emit a reverberant bugle call, hence the name “whooping cough”.
The migrant population can fly 400 miles per day on their 2,600-mile route between nesting sites in Canada and wintering areas in the Texas, Aransas Refuge.
The majestic snow-white cranes counted more than 1,400 birds after the civil war; They reached from the Arctic coast to North America and Mexico. They nested mainly on prairie marches in the Great Plains.
They migrated from the Great Plains to winter homes on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts while a non-migratory population lived in southwest Louisiana. But the cranes declined rapidly in the late 19th century when breeding grounds switched to agriculture and riflemen hunted them.
In 1937, a remaining population of about 15 to 18 migratory whooping cranes reached refuge in Aransas from their nesting site in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The non-migratory herd in Louisiana became extinct in 1950.
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Meanwhile, massive restoration efforts have been made to restore the crane population. These efforts included captive breeding programs to restore birds in Florida and Louisiana, and “training” captive-bred birds to migrate from restored breeding grounds in Wisconsin to Florida.
Most urgent was the restoration of a viable population of the only self-sustaining population of whooping cranes that migrate between northwestern Canada and the Aransas Refuge. While their population reached 506 birds last winter, a thousand birds would be self-sufficient.
However, restoration depends on the brackish swamp of the Aransas Refuge, where the cranes have to fatten up on blue crabs in order to reproduce in breeding areas. Potential disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes could alter the habitat and reduce the crabs, which endangers the vitality of the cranes.
In his book “A Sanctuary in the Sun” BC Robinson wrote: “We shouldn’t necessarily call the saga of whooping cough crane recovery a ‘success story’ because the crane’s survival is far from over.”
Gary Clark is the author of Book of Texas Birds, with photographs by Kathy Adams Clark (Texas A&M University Press). Email Texasbirder@comcast.net.