Mix of technology, art help save one of the rarest birds on earth

Published: Jul. 12, 2016 at 2:00 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - At a remote corner of the New Orleans west bank, keepers at the Audubon Species Survival Center wrestle with one of the rarest birds on earth.

"Croissant," a Mississippi sandhill crane, is being outfitted with an artificial leg. The five-year-old crane was raised at the center, then released in the wild in Mississippi in 2011.

"Unfortunately, it was just a few months later that she got her leg caught in a trap," said Michelle Hatwood, curator at the Species Survival Center.

A veterinarian was forced to amputate part of Croissant's leg.

"Immediately, we had to figure out how is she going to survive with an amputation," Hatwood said.

That prompted the search for a prosthetic and a series of false starts.

"One of the first ones actually had toes that came off of it as well," Hatwood said. "That didn't work because, immediately, the toes started getting caught in the grass and she kept tripping over it."

A brand new model features some bend in the leg - a more natural position - and comes in two easy to attach parts.

Keepers are in the process of making minor adjustments to the prosthetic, which has a sock for cushioning and two parts attached with Velcro.

"She is a warrior and she can take on any challenge," said keeper Amanda Lewis. "This little bird has the personality to take on such a thing. It doesn't seem to stop her at all."

Only about 130 Mississippi sandhill cranes survive in the wild due mostly to loss of habitat, keepers say. Audubon is one of just two facilities in the country breeding the cranes, many of them through unconventional means. Since there are not enough adult cranes for the job, keepers wear crane costumes, complete with a new and improved puppet. The costumes can seem a bit comical, but actually have a serious purpose: to keep the chicks from imprinting on humans.

"We want them to do everything on their own, forage for food on their own," said Richard Dunn of the Species Survival Center. "Not to come up when they see a person on the road or see someone and say, 'hey, where's my food?'"

The old puppet heads were a bit bulky and made it difficult to interact with the chicks. The new version, designed by Japanese artist Haruo Uchiyama, have movable mouth parts and a more realistic look. Audubon provided the raw materials for the puppets and Uchiyama donated his work.

"The tongue is actually the spring, which opens and closes the mouth, which is really, really neat," Hatwood said.

That allows the keepers to pick up food or insects.

"Just like we learn things when we're growing up taught by parents, chicks learn a lot of things from the parents, associative learning," Dunn said.

As for Croissant, she might be a mother crane someday thanks to a love connection with another injured crane brought back from the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi.

"We put him in the pen next to her and he took to her immediately," Lewis said.

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