Whooping Cranes vs. Big Oil

The last wild whooping cranes whoop, dance, and mate, oblivious to their greatest threat.

Published April 23, 2015

Shore Lines is a place for readers to recount an experience of personal significance that helped them connect with one small stretch of the world’s vast and varied coast.

I’m on a boat in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas viewing whooping cranes on their wintering grounds. They come for the blue crab that abounds in these muddy, cordgrass flats. Many forage in family groups—two white, red-masked adults and a fawn-colored juvenile. True to their name, the “whoopers” are noisy, trumpeting and dancing to intimidate rivals or strengthen pair bonds.

I’m delighted to see the birds at last. They belong to the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock, numbering about 300—the entire free population of the tallest bird in North America. The dozen I’ll see today, on this side trip from Harlingen and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, are my first, but I’ve followed their story since my boyhood in the 1960s. Then, fewer than 50 existed and their survival seemed doubtful.

Conserving the cranes is an ongoing challenge. They nest in remote Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winter in southern Texas—4,000 kilometers each way. Females lay two eggs but only one chick usually survives, the weakest of the pair killed by its sibling or a predator. These normally nonessential, surplus chicks saved the crane lineage. Scientists gathered and hatched “extra” eggs for captive breeding. Surprisingly, the egg removal also increased hatching success of those left behind in the nest. Operation Migration, part of a consortium working to reestablish cranes in eastern North America, uses a variation of that method today in efforts to build a second migratory flock. Volunteers dress as adult cranes to ensure chicks bond with other whoopers and use ultralight aircraft to teach juveniles to fly. Crane conservation is about commitment and, I think, love.

At Aransas, a barge carrying a Blowout Preventer valve (BOP) passes a feeding crane family, temporarily blocking my view. BOPs seal underwater oil wells. Threat and threatened are instantly juxtaposed. Unlike the cranes, I know what happens when a BOP fails. When one blew on the Deepwater Horizon well in 2010, escaping oil destroyed coastal marshes, like Aransas, from Louisiana to Florida. Another such spill could wipe out wild whooping cranes forever. Nor are the birds secure in Wood Buffalo—Alberta’s oil sands are just south of the nesting grounds.

I overnight in Corpus Christi near its brightly lit petroleum refineries, and reflect on whooping cranes and Big Oil. In the darkened marshes, the birds likely watch for prowling bobcats and coyotes, their ancestral enemies, unaware of an omnipresent and vastly greater danger.