PORT ARANSAS, Texas – Whooping cranes are the tallest and rarest birds in North America and they’re returning to Texas as they migrate through the state.
The birds were first spotted on Friday at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. There is currently an estimated population of around 506 birds, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife officials.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator Wade Harrell said a family group of the cranes consisting of two adults and a juvenile was spotted at the refuge on the same day another crane was seen in the Port O’ Connor area.
Whooping cranes make an annual 2,500-mile migration from Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to the coastal marshes of Texas and the majority of the birds arrive on the Texas coast in December.
It is illegal to disturb the federally protected whooping cranes, and while they tend to seek out wetlands and agricultural fields, they also pass through large urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco and Austin on their way to the Texas coast.
These birds are slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction, thanks in part to the San Antonio Zoo. The efforts of the San Antonio Zoo to bring back the whooping crane from extinction were featured in “Escape from Extinction,” - a conservation documentary narrated by Academy Award Winner Helen Mirren.
Harrell said that the La Niña weather pattern forecast for this winter will mean a drier, warmer climate, which isn’t ideal for the endangered birds. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are encouraging landowners to consider providing freshwater on their properties to help aid the birds during their migration and wintering period.
While researchers are optimistic about the improved numbers of whooping cranes over the past several years, TPWD officials say the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act could help provide the funding needed to continue whooping crane conservation. The act would create a new federal investment in wildlife conservation work.
The public can help track whooping cranes by reporting sightings to TPWD’s Whooper Watch - a citizen-science-based reporting system that tracks whooping crane migration and wintering locations throughout Texas.