Like any good parents, the keepers caring for two whooping crane chicks hatched at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center in Lower Coast Algiers want nothing more than for their charges, part of a critically endangered species, to be able to take care of themselves when they grow up.

To that end, Amanda Lewis, John Riverso and Heather Holtz do some unusual things: They dress up in ghostly white costumes that envelop their bodies, including head and hands; make studied movements that mimic adult whooping cranes, occasionally flapping their arms like wings; and manipulate beautifully realistic puppet whooping crane heads made by a Japanese artist.

The two chicks, Maul and Palpatine — named for "Star Wars" characters — are referred to as costume-reared chicks, said Lewis, meaning that in order to prevent them from imprinting on humans, the people who raise them pretend to be cranes.

Vader, a third chick from the same batch of eggs brought in from Wisconsin to the Lower Coast Algiers facility of the Audubon Nature Institute, is being raised by a pair of real, mated cranes. Vader sees people every day, but contact is minimal. "We constantly keep food out, so there's no association with people (bringing food,)" Lewis said. "His parents are aggressive toward us and to other predators, so he sees that."

As the tallest birds in North America, those angry parents, Scarlett and Woody, can straighten to over 5 feet in height, making those adults in crane suits seem a little more plausible.

The plan is for all three birds to be released in about six months into a growing wild flock at White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish. Vader's slight experience with humans shouldn't make much difference once he's with the rest of the flock, Lewis said.

Although cranes are typically migratory, the White Lake cranes should stay put in southwestern Louisiana. Migration is a learned behavior, explained Michelle Hatwood, curator of the Species Survival Center, and since most of the flock has been released there, the birds haven't learned that lesson.

The Audubon facility is one of three in the U.S. working to repopulate the whooping crane, whose national numbers plummeted into the teens in the 1940s. Two other facilities, the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, mostly use the costume-rearing method. Such conservation efforts have brought the whooping crane population up to about 450.

The requirement for near-perfect timing makes using crane foster families less common. The Audubon foster is successful because its female, Scarlett, had laid nonviable eggs about the same time the egg containing Vader was laid. Otherwise, she might not have tended the new egg, Lewis said. 

On a recent warm and humid day, Riverso and general keeper Scott Ketron went out to "parent" Maul and Palpatine. In their crane suits, puppet head on one hand, each walked around inside a separate pen: Riverso with Palpatine, and Kentron with Maul.

The pens are made of hurricane fencing veiled in a semi-opaque material. "We don't want them to get used to people or sounds of people or cars," Lewis said. Even those who peek at the chicks from outside the veiled pen must wear costumes, camouflaged ghillie suits that hide their human features.

Inside the pens, Riverso and Kentron adopt a moderate gait, gently thrusting their lower arms forward and back from the elbow, making the puppet head simulate the movement of a crane's neck and head.

"When you spend time studying them (adult cranes), you get the hang of it," Riverso says later.

Palpatine seems wary, aware that something is out of the ordinary. Maul paces the fence line early on, but seems to relax after a while.

"When they're small, they stay right at your feet," Lewis said of the parenting visits. But at 36 days old, Maul is more like a toddler, branching out and keeping only to the vicinity of its faux mother. (Palpatine, a male, is five days younger than Maul; Vader, also a male, is a day older. Maul's sex has yet to be determined.)

The puppet head is complete with a working mandible, so Kenton uses it to pick up a bug and feeds it to Maul. When the chick is nearest, most of Kenton's movements involve simulating pecking at the ground as if for food. Whooping cranes are omnivorous, eating insects, berries and seeds as well as frogs, minnows and snakes.

The two keepers occasionally break into a quick scamper, arms raised and flapping, modeling spreading and using wings. It's important for the chicks to learn this movement to strengthen their muscles for flying, Lewis says.

When they are released in November, all three chicks will be 6 to 7 months old. They will be close to their adult size of about 5 feet tall, with a 7-foot wingspan, but they won't yet be white — that happens at about a year of age.

They, along with their kind, face some tough odds. Although hunting has been prohibited since their designation as endangered in 1967, their habitat is disappearing. And Mother Nature hasn't made things easy for them: The white feathers and red beak that make the birds so beautiful also make them more visible to predators, such as bob cats, foxes and the like. Flying predators like hawks and eagles snatch their eggs.

And the birds, which mate for life, don't mature enough to reproduce until 4 or 5 years of age. Eggs are usually laid in pairs, but typically only one chick survives.

Because mortality is high, when a nest has two eggs, conservationists often pull one and raise the chick until it can be released back to the wild. That's part of the reason the Species Survival Center came to have its chicks. A heavy outbreak of black flies in Wisconsin put eggs even more at risk: The adult cranes were being bitten and didn't want to remain still sitting on the eggs.

Imported eggs aren't the only way Audubon is contributing to the whooping crane's continued existence. With a flock of nine on hand, Audubon’s goal is to continue increasing whooping crane egg production, Haywood said.