Seeing whooping cranes a true gift
When was the last time you saw a really big bird up close in the wild?
A week ago, I was driving across the Texas coastal plain on a gloomy, overcast day. An intermittent rain spattered the windshield in timid defiance of the extraordinary drought that covers nearly the entire state. This is cotton country, and in all directions amazingly flat, unplanted fields stretched toward the horizon.
In one of the fields, I saw three big white birds, just a quarter-mile off the road. I thought first of sandhill cranes. I've seen them here before, but always in large flocks, and their plumage is gray and brown, not white. The great egret is a big white bird, too, but you never see one this far from water.
The great blue heron, a large, mostly gray bird, has an uncommon white phase, but like the great egret, it's a solitary bird that stays close to water. Other white birds crossed my mind, as well: the snowy egret and the cattle egret are common, and the reddish egret has a white phase. But the three birds in the cotton field were much too big to be egrets. As they rapidly receded in my rearview mirror, so did the options for their identity, and I'll admit to a little excitement as I considered the few that remained.
I executed a quick U-turn on the two-lane road and turned onto a gravel byway into the cotton field. After a quarter-mile I stopped the engine, rolled down the window and, from 75 feet away, observed three magnificent whooping cranes. Paying no attention whatsoever to me, they continued to forage quietly in the rain.
A real birder might say that there's no such thing as an ordinary bird, but whooping cranes are something special, indeed. For one thing, they're spectacularly big, standing around 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of close to 8 feet.
And talk about a rare bird! The World Wildlife Fund estimates a total wild tiger population of 3,200 and a panda population of 1,600. Undermined by habitat loss, hunting and DDT, in the 1940s the entire whooping crane world population dropped to around 20 birds. Now the primary flock, which spends the winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast, numbers around 300. Including reintroduced flocks and birds in captivity, somewhere between 500 and 600 whooping cranes are alive today.
The three birds moved slowly and elegantly amid the cotton stubble, looking fragile. But in the wild they're hardy enough to live up to 24 years, and twice a year they fly the 2,500 miles between the Texas coast and the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, where they spend the summer.
The whooping crane's recovery from a double-digit population in the '40s is a story worth celebrating, but the species' survival is far from ensured. In fact, the three birds that I saw had a reason for being at least 30 miles away from the wildlife refuge where they ordinarily spend the winter: Despite the rain, most of Texas is still in a serious drought, which increases the salinity of the marshes and reduces the availability of blue crabs, the cranes' favorite food. As result, they're foraging farther afield.
Of course, any population as tiny as the cranes' hangs by a thin thread that's imperiled by predators, storms, disease or a bad oil spill on the Intracoastal Waterway that runs adjacent to the cranes' winter habitat. Occasionally, an ignorant or careless hunter still shoots a whooping crane.
And a flock as small as this one will have a tough time adapting to climate change, increased pollution and further pressure on its habitat.
Which is too bad. Seeing these birds feels like a great gift. They arrived at their endangered status largely because of degraded habitat. Their extinction would represent an enormous degradation of our own world.
Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.