On the last Saturday in February, Houston Zoo staff rose before the sun and piled into a zoo van to make the 4-hour journey south to Port Aransas. While most would be sleeping, the van was full of excited chatter as the team neared its destination – the 22nd annual Whooping Crane Festival! The festival celebrates the yearly return of the whooping cranes to their wintering habitat. Due to Hurricane Harvey, the International Crane Foundation wasn’t sure if the festival would take place this year, but knowing how important this festival is for both the birds and the community, several local partners including the Houston Zoo were able to lend a helping hand to make sure it happened!
Weighing around 15 pounds, the whooping crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America! Whooping cranes are best known for their courtship dance, finding mating partners through an elaborate display of kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping. Adult whooping cranes can be spotted fairly easily thanks to their bright white feathers and accents of crimson red on the top of their head. This section of the Texas coast is the only place where you can see the world’s last naturally-occurring population of Whooping Cranes.
At the festival, zoo staff got to spend the day with Corinna Holfus, the new Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator whose position is being funded by the Houston Zoo. Corinna, a Houston native, was well aware of the post-Harvey struggles Port Aransas was facing when she joined the team in October of 2017. She didn’t always plan on working with Texas species, but when the opportunity arose she recalled how excited she was at the prospect of becoming a “craniac” – a designation shared among crane lovers within the birding community. Since landing the job, Holfus has been working with hunters, landowners, and other members of the community to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes with the hope of fostering their commitment to safe guard these unique birds. You might think that saving wildlife is the last thing people want to add to their plates when recovering from a natural disaster, but Holfus has found the community’s response to be nothing short of inspiring. “With everything that has been happening here, the whooping cranes have actually become a symbol of hope for the community. So many things feel out of your control, but people realize that they can do something to help these birds, and they have started to rally around them which has been really special to watch.”
While the storm negatively impacted human communities, it actually did a lot to help clean debris and pollution out of whooping crane habitat, which in turn led to an increase in the amount of available food sources. This has ultimately led to some pretty impressive numbers of cranes spending the winter in Port Aransas, with the number reaching a record high of around 431 birds last year. On our day out on the water we saw over 50 whooping cranes – this may not seem like much, but for people like Houston Zoo veterinarian Dr. Joe Flanagan who has been traveling to view the whooping cranes for many years it is quite an exciting turn out. “Back in the 80s to see 50 birds would have meant you had seen the entire remaining population”, he told us while looking eagerly through his binoculars. One of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, but with the help of land protection and public education, their numbers have continued to steadily increase, with an estimated population of 757 world-wide.
We are so proud to be involved in this work to help save a very unique community of Texans, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future. Stay tuned for updates on Corinna’s work with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office!