Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Captive Rearing

Hand-Rearing (Costume Rearing)

Most all the crane chicks raised at Patuxent are hand-reared each summer by biological technicians. Technicians wear white costumes with masks that hide their human faces while teaching chicks to eat, drink, and forage.  The purpose of the costume is to prevent cranes from imprinting, a kind of learning behavior, on their human caregivers.

Each crane’s diet, weight, and exercise levels are carefully monitored and adjusted by the technicians. This rearing method requires a great deal of time and patience from each staff member.

Technicians in costume


A separate cohort of chicks are part of an experimental rearing and release method referred to as “parent-rearing.”  The parent-reared whooping crane chicks were hatched and raised by captive adult Whooping Cranes. This method relies on the expertise of captive parents, who care for, exercise, and feed the chicks.

These chicks will join a flock of about 95 cranes that inhabit wetlands on the refuge and elsewhere in central Wisconsin during the spring and summer.  The flock is composed of cranes reintroduced into the wild in order to establish a migratory flock of Whooping Cranes in the eastern United States.  The Eastern Migratory Flock flies south to wetlands in the Southeast United States for the winter.

 “Over the past 13 years, USGS biologists – dressed in costumes to avoid having the birds “imprint” on people -- have raised between five and 20 Whooping Crane chicks annually that have been released into the Eastern Migratory Flock,” said John French, leader of the USGS Whooping Crane project at Patuxent.  “This new method of allowing captive adult cranes rear the chicks prior to release into the wild is intended to evaluate the effects of rearing by humans in costume, which is obviously an odd condition.  Parent rearing may result in the chicks learning behavior important to their survival and reproduction.”

The parent-reared chicks arrive at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where they are housed in separate predator resistant enclosures to provide them a safe place for chicks to roost while they acclimated to their new surroundings near other free-ranging Whooping Cranes.

The pens are located in the vicinity of pairs of adult Whooping Cranes without chicks of their own.  Such pairs have a tendency to adopt other chicks, and when adopted, will lead them south during migration, which begins at the end of October.

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