Tools of the Trade

Since aircraft-guided Whooping Crane reintroduction is a unique activity, you can’t just go to Walmart or Ace Hardware or even Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up all the necessary equipment. Some of it has to be fabricated. Literally.

Take the long white dresses that we call “costumes”. I’m sure you’ve already read about how volunteer Mary O’Brien lovingly sews each one, customizing the length as needed for wee crew members like Heather and tall pilots like Richard. But there’s more in our kit bags than costumes.

We also each need a Whooping Crane puppet head. This year, it was time to make up a new batch of puppets so we set up an arts & craft table at the Acorn Ridge Motel. Here’s the recipe:

1. Find a taxidermy supplier – that’s where you get crane head “plugs” made out of resin, but they are white with none of the necessary adornment such as eyes, red and white feathers, or mustache.


2. Glue on the eyes. Heather backed them with a round piece of cardboard so the puppets wouldn’t have that sunken-eye look that is common around camp at 5AM.

3. Apply felt. Oh, and it doesn’t come pre-cut – you have to cut out white crane cheeks and red crane “head tops” free-hand. Then you smear contact cement on each section of the head and attach the felt pieces. Bev and Jenny were willing to tackle this tricky maneuver… Rich, Sheba, Lori, Suz, and I simply watched and offered what I’m sure was unnecessary advice.


4. Paint the beak. This was easy, so of course I helped paint. First you paint the whole beak black, then you touch it up here and there with brown, to give it that fresh “poked in the mud” look.

5. Sew puppet dresses. This was my forte! At camp, the arts & craft table became a sewing table. Heather undressed an old puppet to get the dress pattern and cut out 6 blanks. Then I got to work sewing French seams all around, velcro at the top, seam binding at the bottom, and then close it up like a floppy cornucopia.




6. Construct PVC handles that dispense mealworms. Joe cut, drilled, notched, and screwed together the PVC pipe handles to which the puppet heads mount. You can take the cap off and load them full of mealworms, then twist the neck just behind the head to shake out the mealworms for the chicks. I’m wondering if this is why they poke at the heads, to try to self-dispense the worms – they’re pretty smart you know!

7. Attach the head and dress. Joe attached the head to the pipe handle with screws and then the dresses got velcro’d on, and VOILA! you have a puppet!


Helmets require another complicated process that involves a mylar-coated mask into which holes are drilled all around the perimeter so it can be sewed to the mesh fabric through which we breathe. Eric at the Acorn Ridge supplied us with drill bits and Rich painstakingly drilled about 60 holes all around each piece of plastic. Jenny and Lori sewed mesh to fabric hood, and then, back at camp, Joe and Heather riveted on snaps and completed the assembly.

And that’s all it takes to dress up a “tume”! Piece of cake!

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  1. J.Sorrentino October 21, 2014 6:37 am

    Why don’t U go 2 a senior center some of these older women R very crafty seamstresses ! They also get into painting my mom went 2 college after retirement & did oil painting. Plus it keeps their brain cells active!

  2. Margie Tomlinson October 20, 2014 9:27 pm

    Thank you, Jo-Anne, for another fascinating report on how the puppet heads are put together. Sure appreciate all the helpers who put them together with you, too. Also, thanks to whoever took the photos of the process. GO OM Team!

  3. eugenia October 20, 2014 8:52 pm

    I don’t think there’s a single thing about this operation that is ‘simple’, is there? And yet y’all do it and DO IT WELL over and over and over. Of course you refine things as you go, but it’s still incredibly complex. My gratitude is boundless — I just wish I had billions of dollars so I could fund OM every year and give you one less thing to worry about.

  4. Linda Mann October 20, 2014 6:09 pm

    I love learning the details.

  5. ffmn October 20, 2014 11:53 am

    Holy Moly!!! I truly applaud all of the talents of a number of persons to create the puppet and the helmet. Still shaking my head! Finely orchestrated team. How lucky all of you came together.

  6. Barbara October 20, 2014 11:43 am

    Wow! Thank you for your and the volunteers’ dedication! You and your team are making it possible for our future generations to know the beauty of whooping cranes!

  7. Patti October 20, 2014 11:38 am

    Wow! Thanks for the detailed WORK that goes into making the tools needed by OM crew! A lot more than I realized, and am sure many of us didn’t!! Good to see the process and final product that we see every day being used!! Awesome work!!

  8. Russell Allison October 20, 2014 11:13 am

    What took you so long!! YUKYUK

  9. Nancy Freeman October 20, 2014 9:17 am

    brilliant ! bravo ! what a tremendous amount of effort and skill and talent…..thanks to all who had a hand in this, on behalf of the cranes…..

  10. Jenny October 20, 2014 8:29 am

    Jo, thank you for sharing! That was a really fun day. Can still picture Sheba looking at me like I was nuts when I did the little hand twirl to get rid of the contact cement “legs”.