HARLINGEN, Texas – Wildlife biologists believe a whooping crane that got separated from its parents while learning to migrate is spending a second winter lost and in the company of friendly sandhill cranes.
A bird watcher last week spotted the whooper near Hargill, about 110 miles south of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where the world's only naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes winters each year.
A U.S. Fish & Wildlife service biologist confirmed the find.
With only about 200 of the endangered species in the flock — up from about 15 in 1941 — biologists try to keep tabs on the chicks' survival.
Adult whooping cranes usually raise one chick at a time, teaching it the 2,500-mile migration route from summering grounds in Canada's Northwest Territories to Aransas.
During last year's fall migration, however, one juvenile was spotted in some offbeat places, including Colorado, Oklahoma, and finally Bay City, Texas, more than 100 miles from Aransas.
Biologists believe this is the same bird.
"This one particular whooping crane doesn't know where Aransas is. Its parents never showed it," said Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator for the Fish & Wildlife Service.
Stehn said the story is not as sad as it may seem.
Unlike the numerous sandhill cranes, whoopers are not particularly social, he said. The juvenile can feed and roost securely with the sandhills, its biological cousins, but that could change in a year or so when it becomes old enough to reproduce, Stehn said.
"It's not into any other whooping cranes right now," Stehn said. "It's by himself and it's fine. When its hormones start kicking into gear, it'll start socializing more and looking for a mate."
Stehn said the bird has no problem getting to Canada and theorized that a future mate might lead it to Aransas.