LAUREL - The small bird appears first, a gawky whooping crane chick with a long, skinny neck and legs. Right behind is a nearly 6-foot tall, white-robed mammal with a long snout, offering the baby crane a steady diet of mealworms.
The small crane sees a parent figure. But the figure is actually a man in a white costume, taking the first step in the fight to save one of the most endangered bird species in the world.
This is the first stage of training - they call it "avian ground school" at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center - in the effort to create a migrating flock of whooping cranes. Preservationists hope the baby cranes will bond with disguised human trainers and follow them to warmer states, learning migratory habits in the process.
When the time comes, a trainer disguised as a bird will take off in an ultralight aircraft, inviting the endangered cranes to follow in a scene reminiscent of the migrating Canada geese in the movie "Fly Away Home."
Unlike the movie, however, there is no rapacious land developer threatening a marsh - just a network of 25 state, federal and private agencies trying to help restore the much-diminished whooping crane population.
"It's the Endangered Species Act working the way it should," said Bill Hartwig, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Great Lakes Region, during a ceremony at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge to promote the program.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was created by a coalition of federal, state and private organizations. Among them are the Fish and Wildlife Service, Operation Migration Inc., and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
Wildlife officials said they were encouraged by a successful attempt in the fall to lead a flock of sandhill cranes, which are not endangered. But whooping cranes are particularly fragile and more wary of humans than sandhill cranes, said Laurie Osterndorf of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
"I like to compare them to coyotes and wolves," she said. "Coyotes are more adaptable and can deal with humans. Wolves need much more space."
The trainers at Patuxent are particularly careful. Only the staff is allowed into the area where the cranes are kept, and they must be costumed in white when in sight of the birds. Observers must hide behind a chicken wire blind covered with camouflage material.
Trainer Dan Sprague starts with a recorded "unison call" that summons the chick he is training, then climbs into an ultralight aircraft without wings and begins taxiing in a circle. He broadcasts a "contentment" call from a speaker on the rear struts to attract the chick, which chases behind looking for treats. "It's the call that says, `everything's OK, come to me,'" he said.
He stops once every lap or so to drop food, then starts again. "I always try to figure out what's going on in the head of each bird," he said.
Ten chicks, hatched 40 to 50 days ago, are to be loaded into wooden crates next week and flown to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge near Baraboo, Wis., for "flight training." If all goes well, they will begin their 1,250-mile journey across seven states to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, near Gainesville on the gulf coast of Florida, in October .
Whooping cranes, named for their loud, aggressive calls, never were very numerous. Scientists estimate that fewer than 1,400 of the birds lived in eastern North America in the 1800s, before they were hunted aggressively for food and finery. Their snow-white feathers with black tips were fashionable decorations for women's hats until 1941, when only 21 birds remained.
The wild population has rebounded to about 187 birds that breed in northern Alberta, Canada, in the summer and spend their winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the gulf coast of Texas. A flock of 75 birds lives year-round in central Florida. Biologists at Patuxent have a flock in captivity.
But scientists say the resiliency of the flock that migrates from Canada to Texas is in question because birds flying the route over the Mississippi have been killed in accidental run-ins with power lines and fences. They are also vulnerable on the Texas wintering grounds because so many of them crowd into a small area.
A flock traveling an eastern route would have less trouble with power lines because there are more trees. Trees often are taller than power lines, so the cranes would avoid both because they almost always fly above treetop level, said Glenn Olsen, the veterinarian at Patuxent.
Should the experiment with the Patuxent birds work and they return to Baraboo in the spring, federal officials eventually might take whooping cranes off the endangered species list, said Bonnie McGregor, eastern regional director of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Joe Duff, the pilot whose work with Canada geese led to the idea for "Fly Away Home," will lead the trip. He estimated the birds could cover 25 to 30 miles a day, depending on the weather and wind direction.
Duff is a former commercial photographer from Toronto who shut down his business in 1993 to form Operation Migration with Bill Isherman, a Canadian sculptor.
Now, he said, "I get to hang out with the cream of the crop of avian biologists, I get the opportunity to take pictures that no one else can get, and I get to help save an endangered species. How much better can it get?"