If we were to have a pack of Avian Top Trump game cards then the Whooping Crane, Grus americana would be an ace card worth holding: North America’s tallest bird and one of our rarest and most impressive endemic species. So why don’t we rate it alongside America’s other charismatic megafauna? Well, those in the know do, and unfortunately the majority of us don’t.
That’s a situation worth rectifying and here’s an interview with a Whooping Crane from the Louisiana nonmigratory population, assisted with simultaneous interpretation by our Louisiana Master Naturalist of the Southwest chapter, Irvin Louque. Irvin is well-placed for this task as he now works for the International Crane Foundation (https://www.savingcranes.org/ ) as ICF outreach coordinator.
LMNA Blogger (LB): Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
Crane: Yes, sure. I’m our species ambassador, but first, do you mind if I stand over there?
LMNA Blogger (LB): Where?
Crane: About 1500 yards over there, in the middle of that rice field.
LB: Don’t you think that’s taking social distancing a bit far?
Crane: No, that’s our thing, do you see? We like shallow freshwater habitats. The right water level is crucially important for safe nesting and accessing our favorite foods such as crawfish, amphibians and the salinity level is important for providing Blue Crabs. No offense, but we really like to keep our own company.
LB: Yes, I’ve noticed that despite being about 30% bigger than our larger herons, with dazzling white feathers, black trim, and a bright red cap it’s not easy for us to even see you, you even avoid the LWF and ICF guys that are working to help you. In fact, the only people you seem to hang out near are the crawfish farmers!
Crane: Nice people, the crawfish farmers. Yes, we’re amis, as we Cajuns say. Anyway, you can’t blame us for being thin on the ground, before the European settlers arrived there were about 10,000 more of us. We were rather easier to see then.
LB: We’d like there to be 10,000 more of you, but how do you see that happening when you refuse to be promiscuous?
Crane: We mate for life, true. We follow the Marines’ motto, Semper fidelis! If people stopped shooting us it would really help. Our females lay just two eggs in a clutch and parental care is very involved. We take family life seriously. Also, the same storms that pull your rooves off, mess up our nests and can drown our eggs. We lost 17 of our kin in one lightning strike, not here, but it could have been. When you’re the tallest thing in a marsh in a thunderstorm you miss the oak trees of the Chenieres, you know what I mean?
LB: Yes, got to replant those. Climate change is bad for us all. More storms and stronger ones are the trend now. Tell us a bit about your other problems?
Crane: There’s some risk from larger Alligators in the marshes of course and Bobcats, Coyotes and even Wolves on the drier land, larger snakes can take eggs and chicks. I’d rather dwell on those two bigger issues a bit longer and drill down a bit, if you don’t mind? Freedom isn’t free. The law has not always been our friend. In conservation terms every one of us is as important as a Giant Panda, Mountain Gorilla, Blue Whale or Bengal Tiger, if not more so because of our fewer numbers. The Audubon Society gets it. We are slow breeders and subject to killer weather, and here we constitute ten percent of the wild global population. Louisiana once had a population down to just one bird, now thanks to lots of hard work there are 70 of us adults and five chicks.
Since we’re on the subject of numbers, if it costs about $100,000 per head to conserve us in the wild and yet when we’re shot, and if the perpetrator is even caught, judges have to consider the ignorance of the perpetrator and hand out token fines, like $1, and suspended sentences, then it’s probably fair to say that as a people you aren’t fully on our side.
LB: Interesting! Normally ignorance is no defense in face of the law. That case was in Indiana, wasn’t it? Not here. Besides, a more recent case in Texas was punished very severely. There’s the precedent. A big fat fine and jail time.
Crane: Yep. They don’t play. Bear in mind that it’s not your regular hunters that shoot us anyway, they’re not stupid. If they can see us well enough to hit us, they can see that we are special, we have an unusual appearance. If they can’t see us that clearly, they don’t shoot.
LB: So, ignorance is the enemy.
Crane: Isn’t it always? We need to spread the word.
LB: What do we need to know?
Crane: First please learn the basics about Whooping Cranes and our smaller companions, the Sandhill Cranes. Check out those two web pages from savingcranes.org, and also the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries' (LDWF) page on Louisiana's Whooping Cranes. Listen to our amazing calls. Search on the web for videos about us, check out our stature and presence!
LB: Right. I particularly like your Unison Calls, quite a haunting resonance. I wonder if some dinosaurs sounded similar. What then?
Crane: Please pass on what you’ve learned to your family and friends, share the word on social media, in letters to your paper etc. Give a Whoop and join our group, the ICF!
LB: Alright, I’ll do that today. By the way, should we pronounce your name 'hooping' like the whooping cough or 'wooping' like a war whoop?
Crane: They're used interchangeably; both seem perfectly acceptable to me.
LB: That's great. Is there anything else?
Crane: Keep on eating your rice and crawfish and please can you contact your representative and tell them that you want the Grus americana to remain a part of our vital national heritage? We are your cranes and no-one else’s! We’re as American as your Bald Eagles! Whoop whoop!
LB: Yes, I see that you are. Thank you for your time today and good luck with everything.
*Click here for some crane information videos