Citizen scientists help track endangered birds
After a long afternoon armed with only a pair of binoculars and a notebook, a citizen scientist on the trail of whooping cranes will call the day a success if she sights one bird or perhaps a small family of three. The largest birds in North America, these rare cranes—which number fewer than 500 in the world and fewer than 400 in the wild—have been listed as an endangered species for more than fifty years. But their populations are growing, and over the past few years, Central Texas sightings of the five-foot-tall waders, replete with red crowns and black “moustaches,” have increased.
Mark Klym, information specialist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, explains that some of the birds have been overwintering at Granger Lake since the winter of 2011–2012. Mark explains, “Given the migration route, they may have stopped over in the area historically, but it is not documented anywhere. Granger Lake is a new location for these birds to be spending the winter. . . . We are interested in [whatever] may help us to better understand why.”
Mark helps train a small but growing cadre of citizen scientists to observe the cranes’ movement and behavior without interfering with or spooking the birds. Why these rare birds are choosing to winter in Central Texas, hundreds of miles from their historic winter habitat, is a puzzle. Mark explains that, in addition to questions about food sources, experts are interested in finding out how the birds “are thriving in an area where waterfowl hunting is present. How are landowners responding to the presence of an endangered species on or near their property, and what are the habitat features that determine whether or not these birds will use an area?”
Because the birds are an endangered species, strict guidelines—set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—govern people’s interaction with the birds. These guidelines include keeping a distance of at least 2,000 feet from the birds, so as not to spook them. For Gail McAdoo, a member of the Good Water Master Naturalists and one of the citizen scientists who has observed the cranes in nature, the opportunity makes the careful training more than worthwhile. “They are incredibly beautiful birds,” she says, “both in flight and on land.”
To learn more about whooping cranes, Mark Klym recommends the following websites and books:
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at www.tpwd.state.tx.us
- International Crane Foundation at www.savingcranes.org
- Kathleen Kaska’s The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story (University of Florida Press, 2012)
- Linda Campbell’s Endangered and Threatened Animals of Texas: Their Life History and Management (Texas Parks and Wildlife Press, 1996)
If you’re interested in training as a citizen scientist to assist with observing the whooping cranes, contact Texas Whooper Watch at 512-389-TXWW (8999).