The surviving remnant of the great race of whooping cranes, hardly more than two dozen birds, will be "escorted" this fall from Canada to Texas. That is, they will be escorted insofar as it is possible for human beings to escort wild creatures which fly high and come to rest in lonely places. But, elusive though they may be, these huge white birds with the black wingtips will be followed on their route by thousands of well-wishers.
In advance of their coming a campaign is being conducted to alert the human population along the migration route of the cranes. As was the case last fall, radio stations will broadcast appeals to report the birds but not molest them. Their trip will be announced by newspapers. Sportsmen's clubs and civic organizations have helped spread the word. Thousands of post cards bearing the facts and a picture of a whooper have been mailed to persons living along the flight lane.
All this is part of the international effort to help America's tallest bird in its struggle for existence.
ONLY 26 ARE LEFT
When the birds migrated last spring there were 26 whooping cranes left—in the entire population of the species. Grus americana doesn't occur in other parts of the world and they have been studied so thoroughly that the chance of even a single bird being discovered outside this group is highly improbable.
Two of the cranes, found crippled by gunshot, are now captives in a New Orleans zoo. The rest winter on the wide marshes and prairies of the 47,000-acre Arkansas Federal Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast, 40 miles from Corpus Christi. There they live singly and in family groups, each family occupying a territory of some 500 acres from which other cranes are driven. Without the use of a blind it is difficult to get within half a mile of them. On a trip to the refuge I jeeped and stalked the prairies for days before I got a close view of the cranes. When a pair finally flew right over me I was told that I was luckier than most.
The exact location of the nesting grounds of the remaining whoopers has not been found. This summer a scientist hovering in a helicopter over the wild country south of Canada's Great Slave Lake looked down and spotted four whooping cranes, three adults and a young one. His find was the best evidence so far of the general location of their breeding grounds.
The whooping crane once inhabited the central part of the continent from the Arctic Coast to central Mexico. It demanded plenty of space in which to live and rear its young, and when it stood at full height to utter its challenging buglelike call, it was almost six feet tall. But as the prairies were tamed and planted, the whooping cranes dwindled steadily.
A PROJECT FOR SALVATION
Now the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society are partners in a project designed to save the whooping crane from extinction. Numerous state agencies and private groups are cooperating. One of the prime workers on the project is Robert P. Allen, research ornithologist of the National Audubon Society. Allen devoted three years to an intensive study of the cranes, hoping to find a way to halt their decline.
During that time he lived with the birds on the lonely Texas marshes in winter. In early spring he took off by plane in advance of their migration and intercepted them along the Platte River in Nebraska. He traced their migration route through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and into Saskatchewan where they disappeared into Canada's north country. He flew thousands of miles in the far north in a vain search for their nesting grounds.
People often ask how on earth the cranes know enough to go right to the refuge to spend the winter. The answer is that the presence of the whooping cranes there is historic and was one of the main reasons why the refuge was established in 1937.
As a result of Allen's recommendations, numerous steps have been taken to aid the cranes. One of the main objectives has been to find the nesting grounds and learn whether there are any factors there which are limiting the increase. Canada has announced that when the nesting area is found it will be declared an inviolate sanctuary. Plans are now being made for a systematic search of the area next summer.
Each fall the refuge men are waiting eagerly as the cranes come back in little groups. By early December they are all in and the refuge men make an exact count by flying over them in small planes. In recent years the flock has returned with an average of four young birds. But usually a few of the parents are lost, some from being shot, and others from unknown causes. Sometimes the population fluctuates perilously. The gain or loss of a single bird is vital to the survival of the race.
Last year there was a gain. Twenty-one whoopers took off for the North in the spring and in the fall all 21 returned, bringing three gawky offspring with them. This fall more eyes than ever will be on the alert in the country's most unusual bird-watching program.