Rising sea levels at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge threaten to drown out beaches where sea turtles nest and wetlands that provide critical habitat for many bird species. Altering rainfall patterns, due to climate change, may also lead to extended periods of drought that would disrupt the breeding habits of whooping cranes, once again threatening their survival.
It’s a story environmentalists like to tell over and over again, to lift their hearts when they get discouraged: how North America’s largest bird, the whooping crane, was brought back from the brink of extinction. By 1941, there were only 15 of these beautiful giants left—an entire species, reduced to just 15 birds. Yet today, thanks to a dedicated team of conservationists, their numbers are back up to 200 individuals in the wild, and still growing.
To look at a whooping crane, you wouldn’t call it fragile or vulnerable—an adult male stands a full 5 feet (1.5m) high, with a commanding 7-foot (2m) wingspan. But cranes are not rapid reproducers. Females don’t begin to lay eggs until they are 4 years old, and when they do, they lay two eggs but hatch only one chick. To save the species, wildlife biologists decided to steal the second egg (the mother’s going to abandon it anyway) and hatch it elsewhere. Using those extra hatched chicks, the scientists have been able to establish a few new flocks elsewhere and get the whooping cranes back on the road to survival.
The descendants of those 1941 survivors still winter down on Texas’s gulf shore in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge; technically, they are the only natural population in the world. Though these cranes migrate some 2,400 miles (3,900km) up to the Northwest Territories of Canada in summer, they faithfully return here every year from November through April, where they feed on blue crabs, crayfish, frogs, and wolfberries. Beginning in late winter, you can observe them from a 16-mile (26km) paved road that loops through several habitats; the best views are from the 40-foot (12m) observation tower or on a boardwalk trail through a salt marsh to the coast. To be certain of seeing whooping cranes, however, you can book a half-day guided tour along the shoreline in a shallow-draft boat past the birds’ most popular waters.
With the luxurious long legs and throat typical of shore birds, whooping cranes have an especially elegant plumage—solid white, with just a touch of black on the wing tips and around the eyes, like an artful touch of mascara, and a dashing red cap on the top of the head. If you’re lucky, you may see their distinctive courtship ritual, a dance that includes wing flapping, head bowing, acrobatic leaps into the air, and—yes, you guessed it—loud whooping.