Although Hurricane Harvey destroyed people’s homes along the Texas Coast, the same could not be said for a flock of endangered whooping cranes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released an estimate Tuesday that as many as 505 whooping cranes made Texas their home last winter.
That’s up from an estimated 431 the winter before.
“Breaking the 500 mark for this wild population is a huge milestone,” Amy Lueders, the service’s southwest regional director, wrote in a news release. “Seeing this iconic bird continue to expand demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can help a species recover from the brink of extinction. I have to credit our biologists and our partners and local communities who continue to invest so much time and effort to improve our ability to make sure future generations have the chance to marvel at the beauty of these amazing wild birds.”
This year, biologists did aerial surveys from January to February rather than in mid-December.
Wade Harrell, the U.S. whooping crane coordinator, said this has made the estimate more accurate because not all whooping cranes had migrated to Texas from Canada by mid-December. He said the biologists have learned timing is everything.
“And if we do it too late in the winter, like in March, the issue that we have then is that the brown plummage that helps you to identify the juveniles tends to go away and be replaced by white plummage,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also continued using a Quest Kodiak aircraft, which offers greater visibility of the estimated 154,000-acre primary survey area near Austwell.
The estimated 505 whooping cranes include at least 183 adult pairs and 49 juveniles. And according to Texas Whooper Watch, E-bird and GPS reports, a record 21 whooping cranes were outside the primary survey area last winter.
In 1941, there were only 15 whooping cranes in the wild. Harrell thinks that by 2038, there could be as many as 1,000.
He said next winter, the wildlife service will fit more whooping cranes with telemetry devices to get a better understanding of not only what habitat the whooping cranes are using, but also what threats they face when migrating.
“Things like transmission lines and wind farms that they might encounter. Are they able to move around them or how do they handle that?” Harrell said.