Yesterday, my daughter, my grandsons and I saw it, that thing with feathers.
It was whooping cranes on the wing, one of the best embodiments of hope I can think of.
Actually, we heard them before we saw them. The loud, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o that gives them their name caught our attention immediately.
“What is that?” asked my daughter as the strange cries began filling the sky above the house.
We all looked up. There almost directly above the house were several very large white cranes circling and wheeling and crying out to one another.
“It’s the whooping cranes!” Daniella and I said simultaneously.
Both of us had just read the day before in the local paper that the whooping cranes are migrating from Canada into Texas beginning this week. The paper warned that while they would be traveling through North Texas, sightings of them would be rare. But sure enough, by the grace of God, about 25 of the between 230 and 240 whooping cranes who winter around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas flew right over our house.
I called out to my husband to come right now, so he could see them too. We made sure the boys could see them, and tried to explain why the grownups were so excited about “de big white birds,” as 2-year-old Gavin described them.
Why were we so excited?
Because we almost lost them forever.
All my life, I’ve read of the heroic efforts to keep the whooping cranes from extinction. When I was a child, there were less than 50 of them alive in the world.
According to the International Crane Foundation, “the only remaining natural, self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, Canada and winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).
The ICF reports that, “This flock reached a low of only sixteen birds in the winter of 1941-1942, and numbered under 35 birds over the next two decades. By 2003 there were almost 200 birds in the flock. The population migrates during both spring and fall through a relatively narrow (80-300 km wide) corridor between Aransas and Wood Buffalo.”
So you can see why state and federal wildlife officials are working overtime to alert hunters all over Texas that the five-foot-tall birds would be flying this month so DO NOT SHOOT THEM. It is a federal misdemeanor to shoot a whooping crane, even by accident. The paper said the last known shooting of a whooping crane was in November 2003 at a reservoir near Ennis.
“`The hunter, who was fined and jailed, said he thought he was aiming at a sandhill crane, which is gray, not white,’ said Tom Stehn, whooping-crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is stationed at Aransas.”
As I gazed up at the amazing aerial ballet going on above my house, I could only be amazed that anyone’s first reaction on seeing these birds would be to shoot them. My instinct was to drop to my knees and give thanks.
The Star-Telegram story said, “Last year, 214 whooping cranes landed at the refuge . . . With the recent death of one bird, there are a record 499 whooping cranes in North America, Stehn said. It is a "remarkable comeback" for the continent's tallest bird, whose population was 15 in 1941, he said.”
But the whooping crane still comes in third, behind the ivory-billed woodpecker and the California condor among endangered birds, according to the National Audubon Society.
According to the paper, most of the whooping cranes will move into Texas in November and will begin their 2,500-mile return to Canada between late March and early April.
I hope we are blessed to see more of these graceful vulnerable beauties.
Pray for their safe journey.
To see photos of whooping cranes go to the International Crane Foundation at