Support Our Work
A look at weather extremes and the big-picture climate connections.

Texas Drought Threatens Endangered Whooping Cranes

The historic Texas drought that has cost the state several billion dollars in damage to agricultural interests, may also harm an endangered species that has only recently seen a rebound in its population numbers: the whooping crane.

Whooping cranes are listed under the Endangered Species Act after being decimated by the now-banned insecticide DDT. The snowy white birds are North America's tallest bird species, standing up to 5 feet tall, and they can live for two decades or more. 

Whooping cranes at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the birds' name "probably originated from the loud, single-note vocalization given repeatedly by the birds when they are alarmed." Whooping cranes exist in the wild at just three locations, including the coastal marshes at Aransas, Texas. One population migrates there for the winter, and summers in southern Canada. According to FWS, there were just 383 wild whooping cranes as of 2010. 

As the AP reported on Jan. 9, the Texas drought is limiting the food available for the whooping cranes in the marsh areas, which could increase the death rate during the birds' long journey back to Canada. Unlike other birds, whooping cranes do not stop and graze for food during their migratory journeys, so it's critical that they have an adequate supply of food during the winter.

According to the AP story:

"The lack of rain has made estuaries and marshlands too salty for blue crabs to thrive and destroyed a usually plentiful supply of wolf berries. In addition, a long-lasting "red tide" — a toxic algae that blooms in salty water — has made it dangerous for the birds to eat clams, which retain the algae's toxin and can pass it along the food chain."

"We're very apprehensive, very concerned, monitoring the population very closely to see what it is the reaction might be," said Dan Alonso, manager of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the winter home of about half of the 300 cranes in the flock.

There was other whooping crane news this week, this time reminiscent of the 1996 Jeff Daniels, Anna Paquin movie, "Fly Away Home." A group of conservationists leading whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida by ultralight aircraft were temporarily grounded by the FAA last month for violating a rule that mandates that ultralight flights can only be for personal use, and not for paid work. In a statement on Jan. 9 the FAA announced it was granting a waiver to Operation Migration, which has trained the birds to follow the ultralight plane as they would follow their mother south for the winter. 

Unfortunately, the latest U.S. Drought Outlook shows that Florida is at risk for developing drought conditions this winter, but conditions there aren't nearly as dire as they are in the Lone Star State.

« Extreme Planet