Call it a bad case of mistaken identity.
A juvenile whooping crane was accidentally shot and killed earlier this year near St. Joseph’s Island in Aransas County, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department law enforcement officials.
An avid freshwater duck hunter out on his first coastal duck hunt on Jan. 12 saw a bird he believed was a sandhill crane and shot it. When the man retrieved the bird he discovered that it was a young endangered whooping crane and turned himself in to a state game warden stationed in Aransas County.
The game warden contacted a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, who joined the warden in investigating the case. Charges are pending in U.S. District Court.
Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in the 1940s, whoopers have, with few exceptions, always wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. However, in the winter of 2011-12, several groups of whooping cranes expanded their wintering areas to include more coastal areas and even some inland sites in Central Texas.
Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through North and Central Texas that includes cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria. During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. They nearly always migrate in small groups of less than 6-8 birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane. They are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet tall. They are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched.
The whooping crane population that winters in Texas is the only self-sustaining wild population of whooping cranes in the world. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still analyzing survey data to produce an estimate for the Texas flock this year; biologists anticipate that number will be around 300 birds.
This case is only the fifth known shooting death of a whooping crane since 1968, although one additional death in Calhoun County in early 2012 is still under investigation. The juvenile whooper shot in January is believed to have been one of 34 juveniles that began the migration from Canada last fall — a relatively low production year for whooping cranes in contrast to recent years.