James Gentz leases farmland in Jefferson County, where he grows rice and raises crawfish on shallow wetlands.
Two years ago, a pair of whooping cranes started hanging out in his fields.
“They’re beautiful to look at,” he said. “You’d just be sitting there watching them, while you were crawfishing.”
Standing nearly 5 feet tall, whooping cranes have fluffy white feathers with red coloring on their faces. They’re one of the rarest — and tallest birds — in North America.
Gentz said he feels lucky to have the endangered birds on his land.
And this year, the pair did something extra special: they built a nest. They were one of two whooping crane pairs to nest in southeast Texas this year.
It’s believed to be the first time whooping cranes have nested in Texas since the 1800s, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Wade Harrell, the Whooping Crane Coordinator with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, said it’s a big win for conservationists.
“It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone working in the conservation field to get to see an endangered species like this setting up a nest, and hopefully reproducing, in a location where they haven’t been in generations and generations,” he said.
The feather trade, habitat loss, and a lack of hunting laws in the early 1900s all contributed to the birds’ decline, Harrell added.
“They were kind of getting caught from all angles in terms of the actual taking of individual birds,” he said.
By the 1940s, just 16 whooping cranes were left in all of North America. They were listed as an endangered species when the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973. And efforts since then to rebound the population have been slowly working.
Now, there are more than 600 whooping cranes in the wild.
The biggest flock is one that nests in Canada and winters in Texas at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. But the birds found nesting in Southeast Texas are part of a different non-migratory flock that was reintroduced in Louisiana in 2011.
Sara Zimorski, a wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, has worked with that flock since the beginning. She said one of the reasons that flock was reintroduced is because having multiple crane populations helps mitigate risk — you don’t want to put all of your whooping crane eggs in one basket, so to speak.
“If there was a late-season catastrophic storm, if there was some kind of catastrophic oil or chemical spill, that has the potential to be very devastating for that one population of whooping cranes,” said Zimorski. “But if you have other populations of whooping cranes at separate locations, then you still have whooping cranes elsewhere — you haven’t lost all of your cranes.”
That’s also one of the reasons conservationists are happy the Louisiana flock is expanding its range into southeast Texas.
In the past 10 years, the Louisiana flock has grown to include more than 70 adult birds.
“We’ve made some good progress,” Zimorski said.
But there have also been challenges. For one, a total of 14 birds have been shot and killed by people.
“We expect there’s going to be birds that don’t survive,” Zimorski said. “But what we did not expect is that we have had a lot of mortality due to people shooting and killing the cranes.”
Another challenge with rebounding the population is that whooping cranes are slow to reproduce. The birds will typically lay two eggs in their nest, but frequently only one will survive. And for newer couples, it can take a few attempts to successfully raise a chick.
“We have to be patient with whooping cranes because everything with them is slow, it takes a long time,” Zimorski said.
The Louisiana flock will often nest twice in a season, but even that’s not a guarantee of success. Unfortunately, though the pairs in Texas both nested twice this year, neither was successful in raising a chick, according to Zimorski.
Gentz, the farmer in Jefferson County, said this week’s storm dumped more than 7 inches of rain on his fields. When he went to look for the cranes, they were gone.
“It was very disappointing to me. I mean I just almost was in tears,” he said. “I was just so excited for them to nest.”
But Zimorski said they’ll try again next year.
“Every little bit of experience they gain helps them in the future,” she said.