FULTON, Texas - January 9, 2021 - Raising its slim, white neck out of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, one of the world’s last surviving whooping cranes hungrily searches a Texas marsh for the blue crabs and berries it devours during its annual migration to the Gulf Coast.
The high-protein diet is supposed to sustain North America’s tallest bird through the winter and prepare it for the nesting season in Canada. But this year, the state’s devastating drought has made food and water scarce, raising worries among scientists that the parched conditions could threaten the only remaining flock of cranes.
The lack of rain has made estuaries and marshlands too salty for blue crabs to thrive and destroyed a usually plentiful supply of wolf berries. In addition, a long-lasting “red tide” – a toxic algae that blooms in salty water – has made it dangerous for the birds to eat clams, which retain the algae’s toxin and can pass it along the food chain.
“We’re very apprehensive, very concerned, monitoring the population very closely to see what it is the reaction might be,” said Dan Alonso, manager of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the winter home of about half of the 300 remaining cranes.
In 2009, when Texas last suffered a severe drought, an estimated 23 whooping cranes died between November and March, when they typically head north to nest in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. Tests indicated some had contracted rare diseases and were undernourished. Scientists believe some died of starvation.
This year, at least one crane has already died, Alonso said.
Scientists are alarmed because they don’t normally see dead birds so early in the season. Usually, only 1 percent – or about three birds – die over the winter.
“I think we’re going to lose a bunch again this year,” said Tommy Moore, captain of a skimmer boat that takes tourists and bird lovers to view the cranes in Texas’ shallow wetlands.
“The only thing I’ve seen them eat, period, is dead fish off the side of the channel … there’s just nothing here to eat,” said Moore, who observes the birds nearly every day.