National Geographic : 1994 May
t's a bird! It's a crane! Well, it's a close second. Humans in crane costumes are the best makeshift parents for captive bred Siberian chicks-and the expansive wetlands along the Kun ovat River are an ideal nursery. An international team of scientists led by Russian ornithologist Alex ander Sorokin israising chicks here, where wild pairs breed, in hopes that the young will join wild families on migration-a key to restocking endangered flocks. Crane hatchlings become at tached to, or imprint on, their first caregivers, whether human or crane. Ersatz parents-disguised with sheets, hand puppets, and tape-recorded crane calls-can successfully raise chicks to imprint on their own species. Costumed rearing istough. Because chicks can grow an inch a day, parents must walk them for hours to strengthen their joints. "Mother" Mini Nagendran uses a hand puppet to teach acinnamon colored chick to forage for snails, roots, and insects (below). As the cranes grow, their white feathers emerge. Flapping sheeted "wings," another parent sparks a chick's natural instinct to fly (above). No uncostumed human may go near the chicks, so caregivers walk to asecluded camp to bond with their own kind. The camp I shared in 1990 was a ramshackle haven. I can still hear the gravelly voice of Russian ornithologist Vladimir Flint, discussing notes with colleagues by the fire (right). Soaked boots hang overhead to dry, and a humbled husky brought to keep brown bears at bay-lies singed from dozing too close to the flame. Summer inSiberia is unpredict able, wild, pure. Uncomfortable. Temperatures top 100°F or freeze the cranberry bogs. Mos quitoes are so thick they pepper my soup. Wet sphagnum moss is the only toilet paper. Yet I've nev er been happier. My hope now: that a hand-reared chick is accept ed by awild family and completes the migration to Keoladeo--joyful reward for the trying work here.