You might expect that raising whooping crane chicks for eventual reintroduction to the wild requires special care. But you might not expect it to involve costumes.
The whooping crane came close to going extinct in the 20th century; the population is thought to have been down to only around 20 individuals. Organizations like the AZA-accredited International Crane Foundation (ICF) started breeding programs to raise whooping crane chicks and reintroduce them to the wild in an effort to save the birds from extinction. ICF estimates that there are now about 600 individuals in the wild and in human care.
First comes matchmaking. Female cranes won’t necessarily produce eggs unless they’re strongly bonded with their mates, so potential pairs are matched based on genetics, age, behavior and other factors. Staff keep a close eye on the birds through the phases of courtship, nest-building, and egg-laying, and intervene with artificial insemination on many pairs to increase fertility and ensure genetic diversity.
When the chicks hatch, they’re raised either by adult cranes or by ICF staff…and that’s where the costumes come in. Staff wear full-body crane costumes and a hand puppet that mimic the shape and color of an adult crane so that chicks imprint on other cranes and not humans, which is essential to their survival in the wild.
Whooping cranes are one of the ten initial species selected by AZA SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction, a collective effort of the 229 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums focused on saving some of the most vulnerable animals. AZA SAFE will further existing efforts by harnessing the collective power of the AZA community, our partners, and our millions of visitors in executing a conservation action plan.