Tom Stehn's Report: A Magnificent Male
March 14, 2008
Meet Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As you read Tom's report this week . . .
  1. Look for three or more reasons why the Lobstick male is such an extraordinary Whooping Crane.
  2. How is it possible to know Lobstick's age when he's always been wild?
  3. Why does Tom think the Lobsticks should give parenting lessons to other Whooping Cranes?
Click for photo slide show version! >>

Dear Journey North,
I'd like you to meet a very special family in the natural flock. The “Lobstick” Whooping Cranes are quite well known. They are usually the first ones that people see when they get on the Whooping Crane tour boats and reach the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. About 8,000 people take a trip on the tour boats every year. If Whooping Crane conservation had gotten 25 cents for every time a person has seen the Lobsticks and added “Whooping Crane” to their life birding list, how much money would have gone to help Whooping Cranes?

How Did The Lobsticks Get Their Name?
The Lobsticks are named for their nesting area in Canada, located in wetlands along Lobstick Creek. This area is actually just outside of Wood Buffalo National Park on Indian territorial land, a major change in ownership that has occurred in the last decade as the Northwest Territories’ government settled aboriginal land claims. When summer aerial Whooping Crane surveys are conducted in Canada from the airport in Fort Smith, the Lobsticks are the first cranes you come to. First in summer and first in winter! That strikes me as quite ironic.

Lobstick Male: Hatched in 1978!
The Lobstick male is our oldest Whooping Crane of a known age. He hatched in 1978. He will turn 30 years old in June. Our oldest Whooping crane currently in captivity is currently 39 years old. This captive crane is named “Rattler” and lives at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

We know Whooping Cranes can live into their 40s. We know how old the Lobstick male is because when he was a young chick about 70 days old and still unable to fly, two biologists ran out from a helicopter and grabbed him and placed bands on his legs. These bands remained in place for 20 years, but finally fell off. However, a pair is still using the same exact Lobstick marshes for nesting, and still wintering at the first tour boat stop at Aransas, so we suspect the Lobstick male is still alive. A German researcher a few years ago proved it by recording the calls of the unbanded male and comparing them with similar calls recorded from when Lobstick was still banded. Analysis of the voice prints showed they were unique for each crane. These bird voice prints are called sonograms and actually are pictures of the sound waves.

Many Times a Father
Lobstick family in Canada with chick
Photo Brian Johns
Lobstick family in Texas with twins
Photo Diane Loyd

The Lobstick male first nested in 1982 when he was 4 years old and has nested every year since. The year 1982 is when I first started studying Whooping Cranes and I’ve been doing it ever since. The Lobsticks have successfully brought chicks to Aransas in 14 different years. In two years (2001 and 2007), the Lobsticks brought 2 chicks to Aransas. Whooping Cranes almost always lay two eggs, but usually only one chick out of the two survives. Can you think of reasons why usually only one chick survives?

Great Parents!
In total so far, the Lobsticks have brought 16 chicks to Aransas out of 26 years of nesting. A good productive pair brings a chick to Aransas on average about once every other year. You can see that the Lobsticks have done better than that. They are some of the best Whooping Crane parents in the flock. They should give parenting lessons to other Whooping Cranes.

Whooping Crane Population Growth
The Lobsticks are a great example of how the Whooping Crane population is continuing to grow in size. If every Whooping Crane pair were as productive as the Lobsticks, the growth of the flock would be higher than the current average of 4.5% a year. Unfortunately, some pairs don’t nest every year, and some pairs just hardly ever seem to raise a chick. The growth of the Whooping Crane population continues at a steady but slow pace.

Next report I’ll write a little about why the growth rate for Whooping Cranes is so low. In the meantime, can you think of reasons why it is so slow?

Tom Stehn
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge