Ask a wildlife biologist his or her reasons for going into that line of work, and we bet one of them WON'T be, "so I can wear a bird costume."
Since 1966, scientists at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland have been rearing Whooping Cranes in a program that's bringing them back from the brink of extinction. In 1937, only 20 Whooping Cranes were known to exist in the world. By 1966, when their numbers had increased to 42 because of breeding efforts at zoos, an injured whooper was brought to the Patuxent Research Refuge for rehabilitation along with twelve wild eggs. These became the beginning of a captive flock from which many of the world's whoopers are now descended.
The difficulty with captive-rearing Whooping Cranes is that baby whoopers imprint on their caregivers. In other words, they think that whatever takes care of them is their parent. A baby whooper being cared for by humans wants to live with humans, does not trust other Whooping Cranes, and will not survive in the wild. So what's a wildlife biologist to do?
This is where the costumes come in. At the Patuxent facility, as soon as a baby whooper can see beyond its egg, it's handled only by people dressed up as Whooping Cranes. Yes, really. The technicians wear poncho-like white costumes with hoods, which include camouflage netting to cover their faces. They manipulate a puppet crane head on a stick to convince chicks that an adult Whooping Crane, not a human, is raising them. Some cranes are even taught to migrate by being allowed to imprint on an aircraft.
This method of captive rearing is surprisingly effective. By keeping the babies surrounded by the correct sights and sounds, and by moving them to progressively more and more natural surroundings, these biologists are raising whoopers who can function in the wild. These days, the total number of Whooping Cranes in the world is over 600 individuals. It's still not many, but it's enough that a few adult cranes can now start rearing chicks on their own.
As pleased as we are here at Talkin' Birds by the success of this breeding program, we can't help but imagine the conversations some of these biologists must be having at home. "What did you do at work today, dear?" "I put on a bird costume and taught chicks to peck at worms. How about you, honey?"
If you'd like to hear more about what's going on at the Patuxent Research Refuge, listen to our show from Sunday, November 1. It's in the archive, and you can find it right here.