For the Birds Radio Program: Texas

Original Air Date: Feb. 13, 1991

Laura’s heading down to Texas to see some exciting birds. (4:07) Date confirmed.

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Ever since I moved to the Northland ten years ago, I’ve been hearing about snowbirds—those humans who light out for warmer places in the winter. This year I’m actually joining them. Even as you listen to this program, I’m down in South Texas searching out new and exciting birds. My goal is to hit the 500 mark on my lifelist. Since I started out with 497, that shouldn’t be hard to do.

South Texas is heaven for a birdwatcher. The Corpus Christi/Rockport area is so prime that the Rockport tourist bureau even publishes a big color pamphlet about the birds in the area with a complete checklist. Of course, the finest single spot is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge—the only place in the universe where wild, natural flocks of Whooping Cranes spend the winter.

The Whooping Crane was once the most endangered species in the world. Although it probably never was abundant, thousands of them bred in what is now the United States until European colonists killed them off for sport and food. The species stood on the precipice of extinction in 1938, when 14 wild Whooping Cranes wintered in Texas and a handful more in Louisiana. By 1948, the Louisiana population had been wiped out. Ever Whooping Crane in existence today is descended from those 14 Aransas birds. And the only reason we still have them is that in 1938, we had an ornithologist in the White House. FDR, a lifetime member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, established the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in a desperate effort to save this vulnerable species.

At that time, no one knew where the cranes spent the summer, and the numbers were so tiny that no one believed they even bred anymore. In 1922, a Canadian game warden in Saskatchewan had found what he believed to be the last Whooping Crane nest in the world. He killed the chick for use as a specimen, and collected the remaining egg.

Fortunately, the few remaining birds were still breeding—in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, far from the acquisitive hands of wildlife biologists and game wardens. The handful of surviving cranes were flying 2,500 miles between their summer and winter grounds every spring and fall, an impressive feat for a creature weighing only about 15 pounds.

Today, although the Texas population of Whooping Cranes has increased to more than a hundred, the species is still in trouble. In 1979, two separate oil spills threatened to destroy the Aransas coastline. And that same year, avian cholera, a highly contagious disease, killed off many of the Snow Geese wintering in the refuge. Wildlife biologists spent the season chasing cranes away from the affected areas.

Although Whooping Cranes used to nest in the Northland long ago, it’s virtually impossible to see one here now. Last autumn, one whooper spent a few days in western Minnesota, and two autumns ago, Nan Stokes of Duluth actually saw a family of three fly over her during migration. But chances are pretty remote that a group of these rare birds would be pushed far enough east to reach the Northland, and the odds would be even poorer that one would just happen to fly over as you happened to be looking up. No, if you want to see these splendid birds, you can keep looking up at the Northland sky, but your best bet is down at Aransas in winter. It’s such a sure thing down there that boat captains who take visitors out into the refuge to see the cranes actually refund ticket money if no cranes are found. Snowbirds who don’t take one of these tour boats are missing the most spectacular and precious sight in all of Texas.