updated 3/23/2009 11:35:17 AM ET 2009-03-23T15:35:17

Wildlife managers are worried that some of the whooping cranes wintering at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge may be too weak and malnourished to successfully make their return to Canada this season.

The drought has affected the flock that spends each winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. The birds have had trouble finding food because low water levels have decreased the number of blue crabs, which make up 85 percent of the endangered species' diet.

"These are the worst conditions I have ever observed for the cranes at Aransas, with some birds looking thin and with disheveled plumage," Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, wrote in a March 15 report.

The flock had a record number of 270 when it arrived last fall. Six adults and 15 chicks had died as of March 15, leaving the flock at 249.

Stehn said some of the birds, which are part of the only naturally occurring population of whooping cranes in the world, could die during the return trip to Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park because they are so weak and malnourished. Most of the birds will begin the 2,500-mile trip in early April.

Wildlife manager Dan Alonso says they've tried to help supplement the cranes' diet by setting up 13 deer feeders with corn at the refuge.

"We had 44 or 45 different cranes feeding at the 13 feeders," Alonso said in Sunday's online edition of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. "We've been doing all we can to get them nourished."

Wildlife officials also prohibited crab fishing in and around the refuge and conducted controlled burns to help with habitat management.

"It's disappointing for us to see a bad year," said Ray Allen, executive director for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program. "We are not going to give up. We have seen these kinds of setbacks before."

The flock totaled 15 birds in 1941.

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