GAUTIER, Miss. — Dressed in white canvas bags, their faces hidden behind a double layer of heavy black plastic mesh, the biologists turned avian foster parents spoke in hushed voices.
“We don’t want to spook the cranes,” whispered Megan Savoie, crane project director at the Audubon Species Survival Center.
Her concern was for a quartet of 6-month-old birds destined for the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Gautier — not for the dozens of adult Mississippi sandhill cranes calling to each other in creaky rattles on New Orleans’ west bank.
While the four juveniles raised in Louisiana were heading toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so were two more raised in Florida.
But before they could be moved, they had to be caught.
The 4½-foot-tall cranes are gray with red foreheads. Only about 150 exist — about one-third as many as whooping cranes. They were among the first animals on the U.S. endangered species list, and their 19,300-acre refuge was the first created under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
If not for Savoie and other biologists in New Orleans, Florida and Maryland, the refuge would be lacking. More than 95 percent of the 100 birds there either were raised in captivity or are descendants of such birds, said Scott Hereford, top wildlife biologist at the refuge.
Audubon hatched eight this year. Two died within days of unknown causes and one died of West Nile virus complications shortly before it was old enough to fly. Another was eaten by a rat snake. Those snakes have become a problem for Audubon’s cranes. They’ll eat either chicks or eggs — even decoy eggs used to get cranes to keep laying. Several had to have dummy eggs surgically removed, Savoie said.
Snakes are just the latest challenge at the center, which has raised 150 chicks to flying age since breeding birds were moved there in 1995 from Patuxent, Md.
Audubon has 40 adult birds, and the White Oak Conservation Center north of Jacksonville, Fla., has 10.
Savoie had been putting some just-hatched chicks with adult cranes so they’d grow up wilder and better able to care for themselves.
But after the second chick was eaten, she waited until the others were too big to become local constrictor chow.
For their first 10 days, the four surviving chicks were raised by people wearing canvas bags and carrying crane puppets — curved sticks covered in gray fabric and topped with a carved head like that of an adult crane. The puppet pecks its beak against the ground or into water, teaching the chicks to eat and drink.
Then, two were put with cranes as foster parents. Parent-raised chicks get plenty of activity, but “costume-raised” chicks must be exercised five times a day to avoid leg problems. That means running in circles to get the chicks to follow.
The costume-raised pair came right up to their strange-looking surrogates, making them easy to catch and put into wood crates.
The parent-raised pair had to be herded into a corner. The biologists walked in a row down the pen, raising hands high as they converged.
Once caught, the cranes are carried facing backward to protect the carriers from their beaks.
People are the main reason Mississippi’s sandhills were down to between 30 and 35 by the mid-1970s. The water-logged meadows favored by the cranes had largely been turned into pine plantations 20 years earlier. Highways, factories and commercial developments ate up more land. Fire prevention policies let brush take over other areas.
About 12,000 acres of the refuge have been cleared, bit by bit, of pines and scrub and returned to wet savanna. Officials are working on a contract to restore another 800 acres in one of the refuge’s three main tracts.
The end of the 115-mile drive from the Audubon center on New Orleans’ west bank wasn’t the end of the chicks’ hard day.
At a folding table set up in one of the refuge’s four big release pens, biologists hooded each bird with a toeless sock to keep it quiet, then put a plastic band around part of its right wing to keep it from flying out of the pen during a month of acclimation to relative freedom.
Each was examined, banded, weighed, measured and fitted with a “backpack” radio transmitter.
Most of the time, they made a purring contact call. Sometimes they peeped in complaint, with an occasional distressed honk.
During the process, it came out that all four Audubon cranes were named after Muppets: The Count, The Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Crazy Harry.
Aren’t wild animals supposed to be identified only by number?
“We are raising them for their first six months,” said aviculturist Meg Zuercher. “We could do leg numbers, but we need to know them as individuals.”