How Hurricane Harvey could threaten North America's striving whooping cranes

About 300 birds, and a record number of chicks born in Wood Buffalo National Park this summer, could face trouble in their Texas wintering grounds.

About 300 birds, and a record number of chicks, could face trouble in Texas wintering grounds

Whooping cranes, which breed in the wetlands of Wood Buffalo National Park, spend their winters in Rockport, Texas, which was hit by Hurricane Harvey last week. (Klaus Nigge/Parks Canada/Wood Buffalo National Park)

Scientists in Texas are monitoring whooping cranes traditional wintering grounds, and how they may be affected by Hurricane Harvey.

There are still only about 600 whooping cranes in the world, about half of which migrate to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport. Rockport was hit by the Category 4 storm last week.

"We want to get out into the marshes and everything to see what's happening there in order to assess what the cranes will be coming back to," says Elizabeth Smith, a senior whooping crane scientist with the International Crane Foundation.

She said the storm brought high winds and storm surges to the area, and there's concern there could be sedimentation of sand and silt that could impact the marshes where the cranes search for food.

A photo from the 2017 fledgling survey shows a pair of whooping crane twins, which sport a brownish hue. The pair was one of four sets of twins born this season. (Parks Canada/J. McKinnon)

The small population breeds in the wetlands of Wood Buffalo National Park, and spends the winters on the Texas coast. 

This year, the birds will be travelling with 63 new chicks after a record number were born this summer, an encouraging sign for conservationists who are monitoring the bird's climb back from near-extinction.

"They depend on that area being there and being healthy," says Smith.

Elizabeth Smith is a senior whooping crane scientist with the International Crane Foundation. (Linkedin)

"When they come down, they stay with their parents all winter and learn how to feed in salt marshes, since they haven't ever experienced that."

Smith said the fledglings will be learning how to find wolfberries in the marsh, as well as kill and eat blue crabs — another species she says could be affected by the storm.

Smith said whooping cranes also require a lot of habitat, roughly 1.5 square kilometres per family. Together with a conservation group, teams are raising money to do flyovers of the area, get close-up shots with drones and monitor the region "just to figure out what they're going to be facing," said Smith.

She said once the cranes come, they're pretty independent, but scientists will monitor how they respond to the area and how much food they're getting.

Smith said if the cranes do leave their traditional territory, they'll get the word out to people that cranes are in their area and to stay away from the birds, as they are easily disturbed.

With files from Lawrence Nayally