A whooping crane in the wild is an astounding sight. If you’re lucky to be close enough to view one without binoculars, the first thing that strikes you is the size. An adult whooper stands 5 feet tall and has a wing span of 7.5 feet, blindingly white body plumage, black wingtips, a striking red and black mask, and large dark beak. They are magnificent animals and getting to watch them in their winter habitat atAransas National Wildlife Refuge, near where I grew up, made an indelible impression on me as a kid. Without a doubt, that’s one of the reasons I became a naturalist. It made a difference in how I saw the world, to see these birds, knowing there were literally just a handful left on the planet, that an animal so majestic and large (bigger than me at the time) was so vulnerable, that we humans had been so careless with such a treasure.
The population has grown since then and the establishment of asecond flock and eastern migration led by ultra-light aircraft is a monumental success story in wildlife management. Still though, as of January this year, there were only 398 birds alive in the wild,150 in captive breeding programs. Less than 600 on the planet.
Of those in the wild, most will winter atAransas, and the others in Florida. That will be in October.
Four months, with a hurricane season between then and now. Where will the oil be then? What will happen between then and now to the brackish marshes and estuaries this species is dependent on for survival? Last year, the drought in central Texas so impacted the flow of the Guadalupe River that the salinity of San Antonio Bay increased, and23 Aransas whoopers died of malnutrition from the lack of blue crabs, wolfberries and fresh water. That’s howdelicate their supporting ecosystem isalready, without BP’s oil destroying it. The situation in Florida is even more dire, threatening to destroy two decades of work towardestablishing the eastern migratory flyway between Florida and Wisconsin.
Ever since the first instant I heard about the Deepwater Horizon blowout, I have had a couple of recurring thoughts that won’t go away. First, selfishly, I am truly grateful that my father is dead and can’t see what’s happened to the Gulf, his real home as well as his workplace. (He ate and slept at the house, sure, but he couldn’t wait to get back out on the water every day.)
Second, and more urgently, what will happen to the whooping cranes? What happens to us if we let them be destroyed?