Apart from a feather’s obvious ability to carry a bird aloft, it has other advantages. Covert feathers provide streamlining, while down feathers insulate against the cold. Contour feathers create a smooth outer surface that repels rain. They are also effective at repelling dirt which is useful considering that cranes spend most of their time hock deep in mud.
Each year we start the season with bright new costumes and for a while, at least, we look as fresh and clean as the birds. But as they lose the fawn color of youth and turn whiter, our costumes accumulate layers of dirt and become dingier by the day. The birds remain pristine while no amount of washing can restore the white to our costumes, which is why we need new ones every year.
The fact that we start the season looking more like an adult Whooping crane than a raven can be credited to Mary O’Brien. Mary is a Wisconsin resident who has been making costumes for us for many years. She now has it down to a science, selecting just the right fabric so they are not transparent but still cool enough to tolerate on the hot days. She makes tall ones for the long legged and tailored neck lines that conceal collars and hair. She has designed a large front pouch to hold MP3 players and crane treats and side slits so you can reach your pockets if needed.
A lot of custom equipment is needed to teach birds to migrate. Most of it we have learned to build ourselves but sewing is not our forte. Mary’s talents are invaluable to us and we are forever grateful.
We use two kinds of head gear for the costumes. Mary makes covers that fit over a white construction helmet but the pilots use the flying helmet. They are still shrouded in fabric but we look through goggles instead of a reflective visor.
When you cover your head in cloth on a cold morning it doesn’t take long before the visors fog up. On the ground you simply run your finger across the inside but when you are flying that is not possible. The only cure is to take off with reduced visibility and let the cold breeze clear the condensation away. That is not a good practise and for many years I have tried to correct that problem. I may have recently found the answer.
A full face shield would work perfectly but the clear plastic means the birds could see our faces. I have checked a hundred websites but none of the helmet manufacturers make a reflective face shield and you can’t apply Mylar window tint to the compound curve of the shields that are available.
I was looking through a safety supply catalogue recently and discovered a gold plated visor that is designed for high heat environments. They cost $100 each but I bought one to try it out. I cut it to fit the helmet and now I am surrounding it with white fabric. If it works, we will be able to push the visor up out of the way while we deal with starting the aircraft and climbing in. These activities cause the hard breathing that fogs up the visors. Then when we are ready to go we can simply pull down the visor and finally be able to see our take off’s properly.
My lack of talent with a sewing machine means that this first one will be a prototype only. If it works, I may be asking Mary to help us out one more time. Without her abilities and generosity, our birds would not be costume reared so we can thank Mary for a good part of their wildness.