Whooping Cranes: Back from the Brink of Extinction

By and large, there are two kinds of tourists who come to the Rockport area in winter: winter Texans fleeing the harsh cold of their northern homes and nature enthusiasts who come to visit another sort of winter Texan, the magnificent whooping cranes. The largest birds in America, these cranes fly in from northwest Canada in October/November and leave again in the spring. An adult male stands 5 feet high and can have a wingspan of 8 feet. They are elegant, too: Elongated legs and throat give them dramatic lines, and the plumage has a classic appeal that never goes out of fashion -- solid white with black wing tips, black eyeliner, and just a touch of red accent on the top of the head. It would be a tremendous blow to lose these creatures to oblivion, but that is almost what happened -- and their comeback story is probably the most famous of all the cases of wildlife conservation.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, these birds inhabited the Gulf and Atlantic shores in winter and northern Midwest and Canada in summer. But hunting and loss of habitat dwindled the population until, by 1941, only 15 birds survived. All were members of the flock that winters here on the central Texas coast. A concerted effort requiring the contributions of many dedicated biologists and field workers was launched to save them. The team first pushed for laws preserving the summer and winter nesting grounds and all the major stopover points along the 2,400 miles of the migration route. The cranes were slow to come back, but through protection and public education, their mortality rates decreased and the population began to grow. This was difficult and took time because these cranes are slow to mature and don't reproduce until their fourth year. And even then the female lays only two eggs and raises only one chick. Worried that with only one flock the species was vulnerable, biologists began stealing the second eggs and hatching them elsewhere. They have established a nonmigrating population in south central Florida and another population that they've been "teaching" to migrate between Wisconsin and western Florida. So far it's working, but the Aransas flock is still the largest and only natural population of "whoopers" in the world. This year their numbers hit an all-time high of 224.

The best way to view the birds is from the deck of a boat. Several boats specialize in birding and whooping crane tours. They skirt along the coast of the refuge, which is the favorite feeding grounds for the cranes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.