Whooping Crane puppet from Erica L.
California Condor at the Santa Barbara Zoo
Maui Parrotbill at the San Diego Zoo
I’ve always loved and been fascinated with birds, and I think it’s brilliant that endangered species of birds have been raised in captivity utilizing puppet heads that keep the babies from imprinting on humans. The chicks of California Condors, Peregrine Falcons, Maui Parrotbills and Whooping Cranes have been raised in this manner. The chicks are fed, cleaned,and attended by puppet heads that mimic their species, and never see human faces. In this way, the babies are taught to act like birds and not depend on humans.
My friend Erica has had the fascinating privilege to assist in rearing endangered Whooping Crane chicks. I asked her to describe the experience,because if there ever had to be a convincing performance in puppetry, this is it.
As told by Erica L:
“We used two different full-body costumes (along with puppet heads) to raise the Whooping Crane chicks at the International Crane Foundation.
For all “negative” experiences for the chicks (such as being handled or having medical procedures performed), we used gray Sandhill Crane costumes. This was to teach the chicks to avoid Sandhill Cranes in the future to prevent them from becoming imprinted on them and not seeking out other Whooping Cranes to breed with in the wild (yes, this actually happens). This was also to allow the chicks to differentiate between “good” adults (their Whooper parents) and “bad” adults (Sandhill Cranes) so that they did not develop negative feelings toward their Whooper parents. All other activities such as feeding, foraging, etc were performed in a white Whooping Crane costume.
The chicks were actually raised by a total of about 10 different people, yet we all had to appear exactly the same so the chicks would accept everyone as their Whooping Crane parent. The costumes were all the same, and we were all required to wear the same type/color boots and a Whooping Crane puppet head which we wore on our right or left arm (whichever hand was easiest to pick objects up with). The other arm just had a long sleeve which was disguised as a wing, with black primaries like a real adult Whooping Crane. Our heads and faces were disguised by a hood with camouflage mesh netting to allow us to see and breathe, but not allow the chicks to see our face. We were not permitted to speak while in costume, the only sounds coming from us were recorded Whooping Crane brooding calls (how wild adults would communicate with their chicks) which played on a small mp3 player hidden in a pocket in the costume:
There were actually three different types of puppet heads we used. All were hand-made by volunteers through the years. One type was operated just like a pair of scissors to open and close the beak. Another had a hole for your thumb to be inserted into the back of the head and pulled open and closed that way (probably the most uncomfortable and difficult one to use). And the last type had a trigger you’d pull with your index finger to open and close the beak to pick up objects, catch insects, or hand food items to the chicks. The beaks were also used to make loud clacking sounds to discipline the chicks or to get their attention (as wild adults would do).
From day one the chicks were fed by these puppet heads, and slowly taught to eat from a dish on their own through encouragement by the puppet head. Once they were old enough, they were taken out into large outdoor enclosures for hours each day with at least one costumed parent present (just how they would follow their real parents around in the wild). During these sessions, their costumed parents would walk randomly around the enclosure slowly and mock-forage with their puppet heads while the chick followed. In this way, we would teach the chicks how to forage on various plants, which ones to eat, how to capture and eat insects with their beaks (by using our puppet heads to actually capture insects and pick leaves off plants and then handing them to the chick), how to swim by following us into the ponds, and also how to run and flap their wings once it came time to fledge. The chicks picked up on these things quickly and began to copy their parents, picking at various plants, capturing grasshoppers and pond insects, and digging in the mud for insects. The costumed parent would also react to the presence of Wild Sandhill Cranes, planes flying overhead, or loud strange noises by immediately going into an alert posture with head up and pointed toward the “danger”, teaching the chicks to do the same and to be alert in these situations. Basically, we acted just like a wild adult Whooping Crane would while in costume.
(Those wild adults were costume-reared and released into the wild years ago. They return every year to the area they were raised and often follow the costumes and new chicks around, completely accepting us as “real” Whooping Cranes.) ”
Text and photos by Erica L.