NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Caring for young birds at the Audubon Nature Institute's west bank breeding facility requires a wardrobe change for keepers.
They sport costumes, complete with a movable puppet head, to prevent the crane chicks from imprinting on humans.
“We never let the cranes see a chick in our care,” Heather Holtz, a keeper at the Audubon Species Survival Center, said. “If they come out of the egg, and they look up and see you standing over them, they are going to say, 'Are you my momma?’”
The costumes prevent the chicks from associating food or socialization with people.
For a couple decades, Audubon has reared Mississippi Sandhill Cranes at the facility, which occupies about 1,000 acres in a wooded area hugging the Mississippi River.
The cranes, a non-migrating subspecies, live in the wild on a refuge in South Mississippi along Interstate 10.
They number about 135 there, thanks largely to the breeding program at the Species Survival Center and at a facility in Florida.
Audubon added whooping cranes last year after budget cuts closed a federal facility in Maryland.
The first two whooping crane chicks hatched this year at Audubon after their parents had abandoned the nest at a national wildlife refuge.
"The got a plague of black flies, which were biting the adult birds so badly that they just ran away from the flies and the left the nest, unfortunately," Holtz said.
Not so long ago, North America’s largest bird was clinging to survival, down to a couple dozen individuals in the 1940s.
Today, they number 600 thanks to intense conservation efforts.
The two crane programs highlight the changing role of zoos today, which are no longer simply places where animals are put on display.
“There are many, many examples where zoos and aquariums have partnered with federal government, state government, private conservation organizations to save animals from extinction,” Dan Ashe, President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said.
According to the AZA, member organizations spend $220 million each year on conservation efforts.
Around the world, 1 million of the plant’s 8 million species face extinction, according to a report released in May by the the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a United Nations Committee.
“I think the average person, in general, is not aware of the magnitude of the problem,” Ashe said.
For those working in Audubon’s crane program, the rewards come quickly, as the birds sprout from chicks held in one hand to practically the size of an adult within a few months.
“So, it’s a fast turnaround,” Holtz said. “You get to be fast moms.”
An Audubon Institute spokesperson said a total of 14 chicks were raised this spring and earlier this summer at the center, including: five Sandhill costume-reared Sandhill cranes; five parent-reared Sandhill cranes; three costume-reared whooping cranes; and one parent-reared whooping crane.
A refuge in Mississippi takes the Sandhill cranes.
If all goes well, the youngest whooping cranes will get a new home in southwest Louisiana this October.