For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Cranes in the News

Original Air Date: Feb. 25, 2011

The Whooping Crane natural flock in Aransas Texas is at an all-time high. But people continue to shoot Whooping Cranes, and don’t get serious penalties.

Duration: 4′54″


Those of us who love Whooping Cranes can celebrate last week’s news that the natural flock is at an all-time high. Tom Stehn of the US Fish and Wildlife Service verified in a flyover census that the flock numbers 281. This breaks the previous high of 270 reached in the fall, 2008. The flock consists of 236 adults and 45 juveniles. In the late ‘30s, it was doubtful that the species would last for more than a few years—only 18 individuals survived in the wild. By 1978, when I saw my lifers in Aransas, Texas, the population had grown more than 400%, to about 75 birds. Since then the population has grown almost another 400%, to the current 281. Animals were first designated Endangered following the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, which listed 14 mammals, 36 birds, 6 reptiles and amphibians, and 22 fish. Many of the species originally listed during the 1970s, when the American public was passionate about protecting the environment, are doing well. But since the 1970s, corporations have worked tirelessly to gut those policies. In March 2008, The Washington Post reported that documents showed that the Bush Administration had erected “pervasive bureaucratic obstacles” to enforcing it. From 2000 to 2003, until a U.S. District Court overturned the decision, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said that if that agency identified a species as a candidate for the list, citizens could not file petitions for that species. Interior Department personnel were told they could use “info from files that refutes petitions but not anything that supports” petitions filed to protect species. Officials changed the way species were evaluated by considering where the species currently lived, rather than where they used to exist. And senior officials repeatedly dismissed the views of scientific advisers who said that species should be protected.

Fortunately, policies protecting Whooping Cranes were deeply entrenched, but the birds are increasingly vulnerable. Occasionally one of the Aransas birds is still shot by a hunter who claims to have mistaken the crane for a Snow Goose. Fortunately, the vast majority of hunters know how to identify the birds they hunt and are conscientious about wildlife conservation, so in recent years none of the Texas birds have been shot—they are more likely to be killed by collisions with powerlines. It’s a different story for the Whooping Cranes in the Operation Migration flock—the birds that learned to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida following an Ultralight aircraft their first fall. Some of these have been killed by powerlines, but the far bigger danger for them is shooting. Last winter, the female member of the only pair that had successfully reared a chick to adulthood was shot and killed, and this season, just since December 30, five more were shot and killed–three in Georgia and two in Alabama. And these weren’t simple issues of hunter error—as a matter of fact, it was hunters who found and reported most of the deaths. There is evidence that all five birds were killed intentionally and maliciously, and hunting blogs and websites are reporting a lot of outrage about the killings.

School children and adults follow each of these Whooping Cranes as individuals from the time they’re chicks, using the Journey North website. These crane losses are horrifying, from a human as well as a conservation standpoint. I’m sincerely hoping the $23,000 reward will help authorities find the shooters and punish them to the full extent of the law. But I can’t help but wonder what has happened to the heart and soul of this nation.