GAUTIER, Miss. (AP) — 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 theMississippi 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 4 ½-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.