ALWAYS IN SEASON: Whooping crane aids survival of species
Once upon a time, there was a very large bird. This bird had wings that measured more than 7 feet from tip to tip. When it stood on the ground, it was as tall as a small human, reaching almost 5 feet from its feet to the top of its head. The bird...
Once upon a time, there was a very large bird.
This bird had wings that measured more than 7 feet from tip to tip. When it stood on the ground, it was as tall as a small human, reaching almost 5 feet from its feet to the top of its head.
The bird was snow white, except for a red patch at the top of its head, so it stood out against the prairie landscape.
Only the tips of the wings were dark, and they contrasted with the bird's color as it alternately pumped its great wings or soared in big circles.
All the while, the great bird called out with a loud noise that sounded like "KerLOOOO. KerLOOOO."
The bird was a whooping crane.
When this crane was born in 1983, it was one of a very small number of its kind, and humans worried about whether its kind would survive. Scientists engaged in an intensive study of the cranes and figured out ways to identify each one of them.
This crane was given a red band on one leg and an identifying number. The crane was called r-Y.
Scientists did what they had to do, and discovered that r-Y was a male.
Every spring, the crane and its fellows started north from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. It passed up the middle part of North America, passing through North Dakota and ending up at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada.
This is a distance of 2,400 miles.
In the fall, the cranes started south again, passing through North Dakota. When r-Y was still a young bird, he was fitted with a radio transmitter. On Nov. 8, 1983, r-Y and his parents landed near Pierre, S.D. Three days later, they were at Aransas, on the Texas Coast.
This is the record for crane migration.
Strong tail winds and an advancing low-pressure system pushed the cranes southward. Reporting the feat later, a scientist wrote, "They must have flown pretty much non-stop except maybe for some brief stops. . . . The trackers caught up to the birds in Texas."
When r-Y was 3 years old, he nested for the first time, and that fall, r-Y and his mate brought their first chick to Aransas, contributing to the survival of their species.
Whoooping cranes mate for life, and every spring, r-Y would have courted his mate with a peculiar kind of dance that involves much head bowing, wing flapping and stiff-legged hopping.
In 21 years of nesting, r-Y fathered seven chicks that made the trip to Aransas successfully.
Nor did r-Y slow down as he grew older. In six of the last 10 years, he brought a chick to Aransas.
But r-Y did not enjoy a 22nd nesting season.
A farmer found the big, white bird in a field near Almont, N.D., southwest of Mandan on April 18, 2007.
The survival of whooping cranes is precarious, so scientists wanted to know why this one had died. They shipped r-Y to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.
r-Y had died of internal injuries caused by blunt force.
Perhaps r-Y had collided with an airplane, scientists reasoned. But there were no reports of midair collisions. And neither his wings nor legs were broken, as would probably have happened in such an encounter.
Instead, r-Y may have died in flight and dropped from a great height. One scientist calculated a terminal velocity between 60 and 75 mph.
The death of r-Y meant that 236 cranes survived in the population that passes through North Dakota.
Another 119 cranes are in populations in Florida. And there are 148 whooping cranes in captivity. This makes a total of 503 alive today.
This is up from fewer than two dozen birds 60 years ago. Probably, the whooping crane has been saved from extinction.
The hero of our story, r-Y, did his part.
(Material for this article is taken from the U.F.Fish and Wildlife Service report "Whooping crane recovery activities/April-October 2007, by Tom Stehn. Thanks to Cliff and Joyce Eskilson of Nekoma, N.D., for bringing the report to my attention.)
Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.