National Park System sites are great places to enjoy watching wildlife, so it pays to be alert for unusual birds and animals during any park visit. Even the most avid bird-watcher would have been surprised, however, by sightings last month of three adult whooping cranes at the Natchez Trace Parkway.
It was the parkway's first confirmed sighting of the rare birds, which were feeding in a agricultural field drainage ditch along the northern part of the Parkway. Although that may sound like an unlikely spot for such an unusual bird, whooping cranes (Grus americana) are described as "aquatic birds, spending virtually all of the time in wetlands."
The cranes are certainly distinctive; the tallest birds in North America, adults stand about five feet tall and have bright white plumage and black wingtips which are visible when they fly. Whooping cranes take their name from their distinctive whooping call and are the rarest of the world's 15 crane species; they occur only in North America.
Rare Sighting of a "Flagship Species"
The trio of rare birds was spotted on January 19 by an interpretive ranger who was familiar with the species, and were later reported again by a park visitor. It's believed they have probably moved on as part of their annual migration, but the excitement about the sightings was understandable. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes, "The endangered whooping crane is a flagship species for the North American wildlife conservation movement, symbolizing the struggle for survival that characterizes endangered species worldwide."
“It was wonderful to have the majestic birds on parkway lands, even if it was only a temporary stop,” said Dr. Lisa McInnis, the park’s Chief of Resource Management. “Especially since the species was nearly extinct only 60 years ago.”
Winter sightings of whooping cranes are most often associated with the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast, so what explains this report from the Natchez Trace Parkway, which ranges from Tennessee to Mississippi?
A Second Flock of Cranes in the Eastern U. S.
A park spokesperson says the whooping cranes seen in the park in January were likely part of the Eastern Migratory Population, an experimental flock that is being taught to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida by following either ultralight aircraft or older wild whooping cranes.
Efforts to establish and grow this eastern migrating flock of whooping cranes are managed by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a coalition of government agencies and private organizations established in 1999.
According to the WCEP, the whooping crane is one of the world’s rarest birds. Although the population was once thought to number in the thousands in North America before European settlement, by 1938 only two small flocks remained: one non-migratory flock in southwest Louisiana, and one migratory flock that nested in Canada and wintered in Texas.
A Near-Miss for Extinction
The dramatic drop in numbers was due primarily to loss of habitat, as wetlands were drained and converted to agricultural use; hunting, egg collecting, and specimen collecting were also factors in the bird's decline. By the mid-1940s, only 15 whooping cranes remained in North America and the single breeding population wintered in a small area on the Texas coast.
The species is making a slow comeback from that perilously close brush with extinction, and now numbers about 400 birds in the wild. Most of those cranes are part of the flock that migrates annually between northwestern Canada and the Gulf Coast of Texas. There were, however, many risks inherent in having the entire population limited to single wintering and breeding locations, where the impacts of a natural or man-made disaster could be catastrophic, and The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team recommended the establishment of additional populations to safeguard against extinction.
Successful efforts to establish the second migrating flock in the eastern U.S. are part of the solution to those concerns, and the work is paying off. In January 2013 the Eastern Migratory Population included 114 birds (58 males and 56 females). The recent sightings at Natchez Trace were a serendipitous result of this work.