Wattled cranes (Bugeranus carunculatus) are truly big birds—mature adults stand up to 1.8 meters in height—so it's only fitting that puppets and a full-size bird costume are being used to help save this critically endangered species from extinction in South Africa.

The destruction of wetland habitats has caused wattled crane populations to shrink throughout Africa, but the species faces its greatest challenge in South Africa, where only 235 birds remain in the wild.

The Wattled Crane Recovery Program run by the South Africa–based Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and Johannesburg Zoo is hoping to reverse that. The program has gathered 20 pairs of cranes to raise in captivity and hopes to start releasing hand-raised young birds back into the wild as early as next year.

Wattled cranes have a low reproductive rate, usually laying just one egg at a time. When they do lay two eggs, they always abandon the second one. Team members from the recovery program travel throughout breeding areas in South Africa and harvest the second, discarded egg after the first has successfully hatched. They are then transported by light aircraft to a special facility in the Johannesburg Zoo.

But hatching the eggs comes with a catch: Young wattled cranes raised in captivity have a tendency to imprint with their human handlers, thereby interfering with their ability to learn how to act like cranes when they return to the wild.

Here's where the puppets come in. For the last few years, master puppeteer Mike Jordan, a senior consultant with the environmental firm Atmos Consulting, Ltd., in the U.K., has been helping to raise the young wattled cranes through the use of puppets and costumes to teach the birds how to be birds.

"My role has been very much as a bird breeding and reintroduction specialist," says Jordan, who previously served as the head of birds, mammals and conservation training at Chester Zoo in England and also worked for the IUCN Reintroduction Specialist Group. "By using hand puppets to rear the chicks, and later using full-length costumes with wattled crane markings, we ensure that the birds know that they are cranes. Once they are released into the wild, they will respond to other cranes and will not associate humans with either food or security."

Jordan's puppetry skills are put to use during the critical first few months of the chicks' lives. "The reality is that the birds really learn to be cranes with all their appropriate behavior as they get older and grow up with other cranes," Jordan says, "but the puppets stop them from associating and becoming habituated to people during the crucial time from hatching for their first two months of life."

The use of puppets for rearing birds is not new. "We have used it for hornbills and ibis as well as a number of other species in zoos," Jordan says. In the U.S. puppets were crucial in the successful restoration of the California condor.

"With the cranes, the critical thing is making sure that they do not become habituated (imprinted) to people, so that when they are released they will have a healthy fear of anyone they encounter," Jordan explains. "It is also important for making sure that the birds select a correct mate—Another wattled crane!—although this 'sexual imprinting' may occur later in development, when the cranes are a few months old and can be housed together or next to each other."

With several chicks now approaching maturity, the program aims to release its first wattled cranes back into the wild during 2010 and 2011. "The EWT are also involved in a long-term project, which is safe-guarding the wild cranes," Jordan says.

Image: Wattled crane chicks and puppet, courtesy of Atmos Consulting, Ltd.