Why North America’s Gangliest Bird Is Hitching a Ride With the Coast Guard
Whooping cranes are on the move, because of budget cuts.
OCTOBER 09, 2018
AT AND a whopping 17 pounds, whooping cranes are one of North America’s biggest, heftiest birds. They have their majestic moments, but they’re also rather gangly and awkward. Their spindly legs trail after them in flight, their call sounds like a mangled bugle, and their black wingtips appear to splay out, like a gloved dancer’s spirit fingers.
This week, 33 of the rare birds are migrating, but they’re not using those wingtips. They’re flying with the U.S. Coast Guard from Maryland to Louisiana, where they will settle into a new home at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. (A handful of them will eventually reside at some Texas zoos.)
Over the past two centuries, the cranes have had a rough go of it. Their range once stretched from Alberta, Canada, to the southern shore of Lake Michigan, with winter colonies in Mexico and on Texas’s Gulf coast, and scattered clusters elsewhere. They breed in the shallows of grassy wetlands, and as those landscapes shrank, so did the flocks. In the mid-20th century, when there were , the species came vanishingly close to oblivion.
To keep the population aloft, teams at the U.S. Geological Survey’s in Maryland have spent the last five decades breeding and rearing the birds. They began with . Ever since, the goal has been to stabilize the population and prepare their feathered charges to leave the nest without too much human-ness rubbing off on them. The surrogates raised roughly 30 chicks a year with the help of some unorthodox tactics, including donning , using bird puppets, and behind an . The project’s $1.5 million budget was a casualty of federal cuts last year, and now the remaining birds are en route to new homes.