MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Whooping Cranes, one of the most threatened birds in the United States, have found a winter home in Alabama.
The Whooping Crane reached near extinction in the 1940s, with only an estimated 15 to 20 birds in the wild. But breeding and reintroduction programs have caused that number to rebound to 450 or more birds in the wild and close to 150 in captive breeding programs.
But the Whooping Crane remains the most threatened of cranes in the world. Partly because the majority of the birds are in one migratory flock that summers in northern Canada and winters in southern Texas, scientists fear that an outbreak of disease or another catastrophe could bring the species to the brink of extinction again. That makes efforts to re-establish flocks in other locations critically important.
In recent years, Alabamians have been able to regularly see a half-dozen or more Whooping Cranes that have made their winter home in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge outside Decatur, Ala., where this rare bird mixes with thousands of Sandhill Cranes.
On a recent visit, I saw five "whoopers" from the observation building a short walk from the visitor's center at Wheeler NWR. One was a beautiful juvenile that still had tan feathers mixed with white. After their first year, Whooping Cranes turn virtually all snowy white, except for black wing tips best seen during flight and a bright red patch on the tops of their heads.
The graceful whoopers, the tallest bird in the United States, easily stand out at Wheeler when mixing with the thousands of slightly smaller and grayish Sandhill Cranes (which alone would be worth a trip to Wheeler).
"We have had as many as six Whooping Cranes at one time and 8,000 Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler this winter," said Wheeler Director Dwight Cooley recently. He said some whoopers stay throughout the winter, while others come and go.
The Whooping Cranes found in the winter at Wheeler migrate from Wisconsin each year, unlike the largest group that migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas. While conservation groups have worked hard in past decades to establish protected wetlands for the cranes and other birds in Florida and Louisiana, it should be noted that the birds that winter at Wheeler chose Alabama on their own.
Lizzie Condon, who is the Keeping Cranes Safe Coordinator for the International Crane Foundation, has traveled throughout the United States to study cranes. While we were sitting recently in the observation building at Wheeler -- toasty warm on a blustery winter day -- she told me that Wheeler is the easiest place she knows to see the rare Whooping Crane.
The Wheeler visitor center on the outskirts of Decatur is easily accessible, only a mile off Interstate 65 about 20 minutes from Huntsville and an hour from Birmingham. The nearby observation building has large glass windows allowing visitors to view the birds without disturbing them. The building is soundproof, but microphones allow visitors to hear the calls of ducks and cranes. (Except when a resident Eastern Phoebe finds a favorite perch on a microphone, drowning out the other birds while serenading visitors.)
Oh, by the way, it's free.
While cranes are the star of the show, they are far from the only birds that can be seen there. During visits this winter, I have seen thousands of ducks, including Northern Shovelers with beaks so large they make it appear the birds are going to tip over, and beautiful Hooded Mergansers with white head crests that can remind you of sails. They are joined by Wigeons, Gadwalls, Buffleheads, Mallards, Pintails and others. Snow and White-Fronted geese can be seen, as well as the common Canada Goose.
It is not uncommon to see Bald Eagles perched overlooking the lake, and a Kestrel is a regular just outside the observation building.
That is just at the observation building. Elsewhere in the huge Wheeler National Wildlife I have seen a flock of about 2,500 White Pelicans and a flock of several hundred Snow Geese -- birds that rival the Whooping Crane for their beauty. When that huge flock of White Pelicans flushed, it was reminiscent of scenes from movies shot in remote places in Africa or South America.
(Some Alabamians may recently have see Whooping Cranes in other parts of the state. Operation Migration, a project that teaches young Whooping Cranes to migrate south by using ultralight aircraft, travels through Alabama each winter. To see a story and video of five Whooping Cranes following an ultralight in Lowndes County, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/story/30958349/rare-whooping-cranes-follow-ultralight-over-alabama)
George Archibald, a co-founder of the International Crane Foundation and the organization's senior conservationist, recently visited Wheeler. He told me that apart from habitat loss, the greatest threat to Whooping Cranes are shootings by what he called "vandals" -- people who do not know or do not care that the birds are protected by federal law. (However, responsible and knowledgeable hunters are a boon to conservation, since hunting license fees help support conservation programs.)
He said that anyone who shoots a Whooping Crane faces up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $100,000. It cost up to $100,000 per bird to breed and raise a Whooping Crane in captivity and successfully introduce it to the wild, according to Archibald.
Still, it happens. Two Whooping Cranes were shot in Texas on Jan. 10, bringing to 20 the number of Whooping Cranes shot in the past five years.
It is crucial for the continued existence of this beautiful bird and other endangered species that legal authorities vigorously enforce state and federal laws protecting them, and judges come down hard on those who break those laws.
It is also important that voters support candidates at the state and national level who back funding for protected habitats such as Wheeler and other wildlife refuges, as well as state and national parks.
Wheeler NWR is a tremendous asset for Alabama, both from a standpoint of tourism and as a learning center for children and young people. State tourism officials should partner with the refuge to promote both the center and the wildlife there.
I also strongly urge Alabamians to visit Wheeler. There is no way to pinpoint exactly when the cranes will move north, but they are usually there at least through early February, and possibly a few weeks later. Call the visitor's center at 256-350-6639 for information.
To learn more about the Whooping Crane, visit the International Crane Foundation website at: www.savingcranes.org/
To learn more about Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, go to: www.fws.gov/refuge/wheeler/
To learn what you can do to protect cranes, go to: www.savingcranes.org/i-give-a-whoop/
Ken Hare, who also writes about governmental issues for wsfa.com, is an avid though new birder. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.