(WVUE) - Some of the rarest birds in the world at a wildlife refuge on the Mississippi Gulf Coast recently enjoyed their first taste of freedom.
Two releases days apart involved seven Mississippi sandhill cranes, four from the Audubon Nature Institute's facility on the West Bank and three from a facility in Florida.
Scott Hereford, a senior wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, coaxed the 6-month-old birds out of a temporary pen where they had been acclimating to their new surroundings.
"This is the longest and largest crane release in the world," Hereford said.
The USFWS said fewer than 35 of the cranes existed in 1975 when the Mississippi Sandhill Crane Wildlife Refuge opened near Gautier, MS. Today, the population has grown to an estimated 120-130.
Unlike other cranes, the Mississippi subspecies does not migrate and rarely flies much higher than just about the tops of the refuge's pines trees.
The population has been decimated as its wet pine savanna habitat, which once stretched from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle, has been lost.
The four Audubon chicks were raised via two methods. Two were costume-reared, according to Audubon experts, and two were raised by parent chicks.