Vermilion Parish, La. (WVUE) - Six month old whooping cranes are about to get their first taste of the Louisiana wild.
Last week, on the coldest afternoon of the fall, staff members from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Audubon Nature Institute released 11 of the endangered cranes into a large holding pen in the White Lake Wetlands Conservation southwest of Lafayette.
Those handling the birds wear costumes and masks to try and prevent the birds from imprinting on humans.
The birds will remain in the netted enclosure for the next couple of weeks as they transition to the wild.
Whooping cranes, the tallest bird native to North America, grow to about five feet tall and sport a wingspan of six to seven feet.
The birds were virtually wiped out by the 1950s due to hunting and loss of habitat.
However, government protections and conservation programs have allowed their numbers to grow more than 500 in the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2011, Wildlife and Fisheries began releasing young whooping cranes into the marsh in Louisiana.
Before releasing the cranes, biologists attached color bands and transmitters to track the birds in the future.
After they open the holding pen in coming weeks, biologists will continue to provide food for the birds to encourage them to stay in the area for a period of time and away from potential human interaction.
This latest batch of whooping cranes was raised from chicks to near adulthood, four at the Audubon Species Survival Center and seven at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin.
The birds will add to an estimated population of about 60.