BURIRAM, Thailand – A fuzzy-headed baby sarus crane hatched on a rural farm this fall offers a glimmer of hope for wildlife conservationists, organic farming advocates and a nation grieving after the death of their beloved king. That's because this chubby chick named Rice is the first of its auspicious species to survive after hatching in the wild in Thailand in 50 years.
The tallest flying birds in the world, 70 incubator-hatched, hand-fed sarus cranes have been raised and released over the past five years in Thailand's farm-rich northeast province of Buriram, whooping their startling two-toned song at dawn.
"The older generations told us about these cranes, they said they bring luck, but when I actually saw one in my field I was so excited," village leader Thongpoon Unjit said.
He and dozens of other farmers stopped using pesticides and parked their noisy tractors to help the birds survive. They hand-harvest for acres and leave large swaths untouched around nests.
Already the birds have brought good fortune: The farmers' organic rice sells for a premium at Bangkok supermarkets.
Forty-two of the cranes released in the wild have survived so far, and eight are living in monogamous pairs. But until now none have managed to successfully reproduce. Rice, now about a month old, likely pecked its little sibling to death, but that's to be expected, say the experts.
"It's been really fun to watch this family," said visiting ornithologist George Archibald, spying on the yellow-brown hatchling and its magenta-topped parents through a spotting scope. "I've been really touched by the intimacy of the parents to their juvenile. They're just continually watching that chick."
Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, has advised Thai animal scientists throughout their efforts to reintroduce sarus cranes, 6-foot-tall birds listed as vulnerable globally and extinct in Thailand.
"There are many challenges facing these cranes," said Archibald. "Will the farmers tolerate a little bit of damage in their rice fields? Will there be too many powerlines? Will the cranes fly into them? Will this landscape that has been absolutely transformed by modern man have a place that's safe for these enormous birds?"
To bring them back, scientists borrowed a few sarus cranes from neighboring Cambodia, where a rare flock lives in a refuge. The United Nations Development Program helped pull together more than $1.5 million for sarus cranes and two other endangered species in Thailand.
But raising any type of crane to survive in the wild is a delicate matter, in large part because the birds tend to imprint on humans around them. Wildlife biologists who feed, care for and transport the birds from zoo incubators to temporary outdoor habitats wear fake crane suits to stop the birds from bonding.
At the Korat Zoo last week, birdkeeper Sarawut Wongsombat, sweating in his white gown, opened and closed a large Sarus crane puppet mouth in his right hand while waving a tiny tilapia in front of the beak of an 8-day-old chick that wobbled on its skinny legs. The little bird refused the fish again and again, shaking its head and hopping away. But when Sarawut took a break, the curious chick gobbled a few mealworms it found in a bowl, followed by some pink vitamin water.
"He did OK for his first meal," said Sarawut, pulling off the costume.
About 100 miles north, two sarus cranes were released just one day earlier, hopping into a wetland from the arms of their "Mom and Dad," animal scientists Tanat Uttaraviset and Natawut Wanna, wearing gray-white gowns with hoods and fabric flapping wings.
The shaky fledglings, who had spent the past three months in a temporary mesh shelter in the wetland, hopped around and flapped their wings before launching on their first flights.
Standing thigh-high in a bog next to an organic rice paddy, conservationists watched nervously as the birds they'd help raise each flapped a large loop over the field. It's a dicey moment when a sarus crane first flies: Sometimes they crash into trees. Other times they face plant on touchdown.
On this day both aced their landings.
More of these releases are slated for later this month. Organizers plan a ceremony with the Environmental Ministry to introduce nine adolescent sarus cranes into the wild, honoring King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died Oct. 13 at age 88. The birds are considered good luck, and better yet, the number nine honors the king, who was known as Rama IX for his place in the nation's dynasty.
Bhumibol's legacy includes his concern for upcountry rice farms, where he introduced sustainable, environmentally friendly methods.
"It will be a great way to honor the king, with these special birds," said Nathanik Klaklangsmorn of the U.N. Development Program.