Around the World in 15 Cranes

(Brian Owens; February 24, 2017)

This week, when George Archibald arrived in Port Aransas, Texas for the annual Whooping Crane Festival, it marked the end of a remarkable journey. He was back with his beloved Whooping Cranes—one of the birds that inspired him to start the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in 1973—after a whirlwind tour visiting all 15 species of cranes in their native habitats.

For six weeks he traveled around the world, stopping in nine countries on four continents, to check in on the Whoopers’ extended family: the six-foot-tall Sarus Crane in India, South Africa’s Grey Crowned-Crane with its elegant spray of golden head feathers, the bluish-gray, salt-water-drinking Brolga in Australia, and many more.

When one of ICF’s major benefactors proposed the trip, Archibald jumped at the chance. It was a rare opportunity for him to meet up with ICF’s many collaborators around the world and get a first-hand look at their crane conservation projects. But the real joy was in visiting the birds that have been Archibald’s obsession for decades. “Meeting the cranes was akin to meeting loved ones,” he says.

The highlight of the trip came on February 12 in Ethiopia, when Archibald and his ICF coterie flew into Bale Mountains National Park to look for Wattled Cranes. These odd birds, with white and red wattles that swing from their throats, count among the rarest birds in the country. Fewer than 300 Wattled Cranes live in Ethiopia, where they form the species’ most northernmost population, some 2,000 miles north of the main group on the floodplains of Zambia.

While flying the 250 miles back to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, from Bale Mountains National Park, Archibald asked the pilot to fly low over a large dam reservoir on a river in the hopes of spotting more birds. As the plane swung low, they spotted a flock of 20 or 30 Wattled Cranes foraging along the reservoir—a flock that had never been recorded before.

“It’s a very exciting moment to discover this new dry-season gathering population at the reservoir,” Archibald says. It was also a larger group than typically found. An Ethiopian colleague, who is doing his PhD on Wattled Cranes in Bale Mountains National Park, has been able to find just four breeding pairs.

That discovery was a moment of unbridled joy on a trip that drove home the severity of the threats that cranes face around the world, as the birds lose their wetland habitats to climate change, invasive species, and human activities. In the past 20 years, for example, the Wattled Crane population has dropped by around 50 percent, to some 7,000 birds, Archibald says. The species’ decline is mainly driven by dams that flood wetlands and an invasive plant from South America, called Mimosa pigra, which smothers wetlands with dense, thorny bushes impenetrable to the birds.

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