The 10 juvenile whooping cranes were understandably wary and a bit stand-offish towards the costume when we first put them in their new, temporary home late in the afternoon of February 16, 2011. After all they had been caught and put into wooden shipping crates by their trusted costumed “parents” in MD and then after a long day of traveling they were pulled out and carried to their new enclosure by unknown costumed “parents” here in LA. Cranes don’t like to be held, or carried, or restrained and all of those things had just happened, not to mention they were now in a completely new and unfamiliar environment with costumed caretakers that were also unfamiliar.
You might think any person wearing a crane costume looks the same, and they do for the most part, but people are different shapes and sizes and they walk and stand differently and none of these differences go un-noticed by the cranes. So our job starting February 17th was to win them over and gain their trust since we would now be the ones caring for and monitoring them. It is important for the birds to trust the costume because this allows us to observe the birds at a close distance if needed and it hopefully gives us a bit of control over the birds by having them pay attention to and respond to the costume. How might we do this? With treats. And what is a treat for a juvenile whooping crane? Grapes.
We spent time with the birds over the next few days observing them and making sure they were all doing well and adjusting to their new environment. We played the familiar brood call from the MP3 player hidden in the pocket of our costume, we encouraged them to eat from the feeders that were filled with the same pellets they were used to eating and we offered them treats. With time, patience, and a hidden Ziploc baggie full of grapes we gained the trust of most of the birds. A few birds remained a little more shy and kept a greater distance from the costume despite the temptation of delicious grapes.
Aside from assuring ourselves that the birds were physically fine after the shipment, spending time with and observing them allowed me to teach and coach other project staff how to work in costume and how to interact with these birds. It also allowed us to learn the dynamics of the group as well as the personalities of the individual birds. #2, a small female, was not shy at all and came right up to us, sticking close and begging for treats. #4, a large male, was also one of the first brave birds, apparently not fazed by the ordeal he had been through the previous day. #6 wanted the treats but wasn’t quite ready to take them from the puppet bill so we put some grapes on the platform where she could reach them but then quickly back away. #10 remained the most wary and wasn’t even tempted by the grapes, at least not on this first day. She kept her distance and just watched all the interactions and activity that surrounded her.
It was clear the birds were enjoying the water (having just come from the snow covered frozen ground of MD) as they walked and ran through it, splashed and bathed in it, and foraged in it as naturally as if they’d been living in the marsh their whole lives. We were excited to see #8, the youngest male in the group catch and start to eat a crawfish that very first morning and figured it wouldn’t be long before the others would find their own natural treats in their new LA home.
Update written by Sara Zimorski