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Consumer Reports

Toymaker in search of animal thought extinct | (KRT) When K&M International, a toy maker from Twinsburg, Ohio, decided to expand its business, it turned for inspiration to the fastest-growing hobby in America - bird-watching.

But people there never imagined themselves as key players in the midst of an ornithological mystery.

``It's been very exciting and satisfying,'' said Manjit Dhillon, a marketing manager for K&M.

Bird scientists and hobbyists from across oceans are turning to K&M for help luring the Jerdon's courser, a songbird living mainly in remote parts of India.

The bird was believed to have been extinct for more than 70 years, until a well-respected scientist saw one and noted it in 2000.

Several others made similar findings and noted them.

But just as quickly as the warblers had come, they disappeared again.

The question of the sudden escape puzzled even the brightest minds in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the equivalent of the National Audubon Society in America). What could they do to preserve a bird bordering on extinction?

``The stakes of major research were hanging on finding this bird and following it,'' said Andrew South, a spokesman for RSPB in London.

Through word of mouth in bird-loving circles, RSPB learned about the work of K&M and began to investigate.

The National Audubon Society first approached K&M in 2002 about making a line of true-to-life birds.

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The society had seen that a project with long-armed monkeys was a great success for K&M, so it knew the company's capabilities.

Audubon officials helped K&M designers pick which birds to manufacture and to get the details of them just right, from beak length to feather color.

It was during one of these meetings that the Audubon Society suggested that K&M consult with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.

Cornell has a massive audio library of birdsounds taped in the wild by scientists and dating back as far as the 1950s.

K&M embedded the recordings in electronic chips and installed them in the plush birds designed for cuddling. The chirp is activated by a squeeze of the birds.

A tag is attached to each bird explaining its natural environment, origin and characteristics as well as where and when the sounds were recorded.

At the RSPB's request, K&M took the recording of a Jerdon's courser that Cornell had in its file and rerecorded it in one of the boxes similar to those they put inside their plush animals. The sound is clear and true.

Armed with these chirping sound boxes from K&M, scientists hope they'll be able to lure Jerdon's coursers out from hiding.

And if they reveal themselves, they'll find many open arms.

After all, K&M's motto is ``the hug of the wild.''

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© 2004, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services