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Last refuge for whooping cranes.

Quiet, dusty Rockport, Texas is a shrimping and sport fishing center, a vacation destination for "winter Texans" from the midwest, and one of the only places in the world to see the endangered whooping crane, the largest bird in North America.

Whooping cranes could have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet and the Labrador duck. Hunters and addle-brained egg collectors did their best to kill them off. Consider this Victorian scribble by collector George Sennett in 1876, "Was ever a sight so grand!...I slowly arose, turned, and gave her one barrel as she was rising from the nest, and the next before she had gone six feet, dropping her into the water." By 1939, only 14 cranes were left alive. That same year, the federal Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 55,000-acre salt marsh habitat, was created by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide a last stand for the birds, which can grow to be four-and-a-half feet high with a seven-foot wingspan.

Even if they weren't magnificently beautiful, whooping cranes would be notable for their appealing social habits. For one, these marine animal feeders (they also like acorns) are monogamous: Males, when widowed, will quickly find a new spouse through an elaborate courting dance. Whooping cranes rarely appear without their mates; viewed through binoculars from the refuge's three-story observation tower, they look like twin cotton balls against the dark marsh grass.

Migratory cranes travel some 2,500 miles at the end of each winter season, clocking 400 miles a day from the south Texas marsh to Wood Buffalo Park on the Alberta/Yukon border in Canada. While in Texas, they're the center of a lively tourist trade that, in most cases, is conscious enough not to disturb them. John Howell, captain of the Pisces, one of several tour boats, provides a lively commentary while weaving through the refuge's inlets: He also impressed the passengers by immediately reporting a trespassing fisherman.

"There are 263 whooping cranes worldwide," Howell said, "and 138 of them are in our refuge area. There were 11 chicks this year--we have the only reproducing flock." He maneuvered the Pisces down a narrow canal and stopped dead as a pair of cranes began feeding in the shallow water, maybe 300 feet away. Their impossibly thin black legs looked like pipe cleaners; their five-foot white necks like albino snakes.

Despite the protected refuges at both ends of the cranes' migration, the birds are still not safely established: Predators (like foxes) occasionally attack them, power lines sometimes kill them, oil spills (from wells in the refuge) threaten them, and there are all the other usual man-made dangers--still including, incredibly enough, poachers. And there have been major setbacks, such as a 1991 drought, which cut the birthrate at the second major wild colony, which travels between Grays Lake, Idaho and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Hunting magazines from 1910 rave of the pleasures of killing "the big white fellows"; we've made some progress since then, but whooping cranes, almost as symbolic as bald eagles, remain considerably more threatened. Contact: The International Crane Foundation, P.O. Box 447, Baraboo, WI/(608)356-9462.
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Title Annotation:Rockport, Texas
Author:Motavalli, Jim
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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