The whooping crane, North America’s tallest bird (five feet tall with a seven-foot wingspan), is endangered and has been since 1970. It flies south from Canada and hangs out in Texas in the winter, arriving in October and leaving in mid-April.
Named for their loud call, the snow-white whooping cranes are our wildlife “connection” to Canada. They breed up in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and then fly more than 2,400 miles to get here.
Folks, that’s some kind of dedication. I don’t even like to drive to Houston much less contemplate an annual round-trip flight of that distance anywhere.
Why am I making a big deal about a bunch of birds?
Less than 375 of them exist in the world. And four of those 375 whoopers are at the San Antonio Zoo right here in the Lone Star State. That’s pretty seriously endangered.
We Texans have been entrusted with a sacred duty to preserve the birds and that’s happening at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Austwell. Our Canadian partners are doing the same at Wood Buffalo National Park. In a way, the cranes are our connection to another country and they are a reminder that we need each other for survival.
So what are the birds like? According to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, whooping cranes mate for life, but will accept a new mate if one dies. The cranes can live up to 24 years in the wild. A mated pair shares brooding duties; either the male or the female is always on the nest. Generally, one chick survives. It can leave the nest while quite young, but is still protected and fed by its parents. Chicks are rust-colored when they hatch; at about four months, chicks' feathers begin turning white. By the end of their first migration, they are brown and white, and as they enter their first spring, their plumage is white with black wing tips.
I’m intrigued by the fact that the birds mate for life. Makes you wonder if humans were given dominion over the animals, then why is it that the animals get the whole partnership thing right when so many of us don’t?
About 290 of the cranes arrived during the autumn of 2010 at ANWR. I read that that is a record and shows the cranes are making a comeback. After 36 years on the endangered species list, I hope so. But the birds have a long way to go and won’t be off that list for some time. And they need our help.
For the cranes to survive, water is critical. It’s where they live, eat and breed. Without water, there is no food. The birds eat blue crabs that must have fresh water to live. Texas has had some serious go-rounds with drought, but it looks like the cranes are managing in spite of the challenges.
I don’t really know what impact the cranes have on their ecosystems. Some argue that the loss of whooping cranes has absolutely no impact, but I have a feeling if we lost the whooping crane entirely, it would soon become apparent what we lost. That’s usually the way of things: you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.
And the birds are important, not just ecologically, but spiritually.
In some cultures, the crane represents happiness, wisdom, longevity and immortality. It is believed that the wings of the crane carry souls to heaven or into spiritual enlightenment, bringing them out of the darkness and into the light. In ancient Egypt, the two-headed crane represented the beginning of an age of joy and prosperity. So I wonder if the increased numbers of whooping cranes that returned to us this year represent better times ahead. It certainly represents enlightenment in that we’re not just thinking about ourselves anymore, and that’s almost always a good thing.
Whatever the return of the cranes means for Texas and Canada, it also means something to me. The whooping cranes remind me of a trip I took with people I love and the chance to reach out to others in an entirely different place in a way that makes a real mark on the world. They remind me that survival is possible against crushing odds and that it is important to accept the help offered by others to make that survival possible.
If wild birds can do that, then we can too.