They’re all connected. Spiritually, if not exactly literally. A 1996 family film based on the real-life experiences of a Pickering, Ont. naturalist who taught Canada geese to follow his ultralight aircraft through the sky; a 2012 publicity stunt by Vladimir Putin to guide a flock of young Siberian cranes with his microlight aircraft on their migration route; and a bid late last year to repatriate critically endangered, captive-raised northern bald ibises back to the wild by guiding them on a three-week migration across the Alps to their wintering grounds in Tuscany using — you guessed it — an ultralight aircraft, prove one thing: Not all good ideas are created equal, and not all environmental news is bad.
Fly Away Home, directed by Never Cry Wolf and The Black Stallion’s Carroll Ballard — a card-carrying member of Francis Ford Coppola’s late 1970s’ film-making company American Zoetrope — was warmly received by critics and moviegoing audiences alike when it was released in theatres, and not just because actor-playwright Jeff Daniels and young Anna Paquin made an enchanting onscreen father-daughter couple. Reviewers at the time described Fly Away Home as an evocative, uplifting — no pun intended — film that, as one animal-rights noted, “celebration of the creative ways human beings and animals can help, assist, and love one another.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote that “Mr. Ballard (turned) a potentially treacly children’s film into an exhilarating 1990s’ fable.”
Bill Lishman, the real-life, dyslexic, colour-blind sculptor and naturalist whose experiences provided fodder for his autobiography Father Goose — later adapted by Hollywood as the fictionalized feature film Fly Away Home — died this past December, just two weeks after he was diagnosed with leukaemia.
He is said to have been the first person to have guided geese on their migration routes using an ultralight aircraft, which he first did in 1988, just three years after he told his wife and daughters that he was going to teach birds to fly with him.
Lishman’s small-scale, homespun efforts were studied and copied by other grassroots, family-run conservancies around the world, and an environmental program showed early success with the endangered Siberian crane. In 2012, looking to raise his public profile and boost his reputation as a rugged, eco-sensitive outdoorsman, Russian president Putin famously donned an all-over white suit and pair of goggles and temporarily became surrogate parent to a flock of juvenile cranes.
This isn’t “junk science,” by the way: The phenomenon, officially known as imprinting, describes the way certain species of birds attach themselves to the first living being they see after birth.
For the record, Putin did have a copilot on his famous flight in a motorized hang glider; presumably the copilot was the brains of the operation, at least where the actual flying was concerned.
Putin took the stunt seriously; when a Russian conservationist with the crane program complained to western media that it was a glorified photo op that did little to further the cranes’ cause, Putin is said to have phoned her out-of-the-blue to complain about her attitude. (Interestingly, Guardian science writer Flora Malein wrote in a Sept. 2012 opinion piece that the self-styled man-of-action can be considered to have done a good deed by bringing worldwide attention to a critically endangered species. Siberian cranes at the time were in rapid decline, their numbers estimated at no more than 2,900-3,000.)
Migration isn’t a natural instinct, according to behavioural scientists: It’s taught behaviour. Parents teach them to migrate. Because young birds imprint on the first living being they see, they’ll accept a basic disguise, even a disguise as weird as a white flight-suit and a microlight with rigid wings and a sputtering engine.
Imprinting is not common to all birds, of course. It has been observed in a surprising number of geese, cranes, ducks, and now ibises.
The northern bald ibis had been extinct in the wild in central Europe for more than 300 years, surviving only in a handful of zoos.
Thanks to the efforts of a multi-year project in Austria and Germany, a project that involves both imprinting and the judicious use of ultralights, some 100 ibises now live wild in southern Germany and Austria.
This past year’s migration flight involved (human) foster parents and some 30 (bird) subjects hand-raised at a Vienna zoo from the time they were just a few days old. The migration flight was the fifth successful flight of its kind. Granted, program founder Johannes Fritz says, the northern bald ibis is not a particularly sexy or beautiful bird — a Siberian crane it ain’t — but as program founder Johannes Fritz recently told the Guardian newspaper, they have certain charisma all their own.
Hollywood movies aren’t just about entertainment, it runs out. Fritz told the Guardian he drew inspiration for his wacky program from Fly Away Home, which he saw while studying for his PhD at a behavioural science research institute — a research institute that had just started working with captive-born bald ibis chicks at a nearby zoo.
What goes around, comes around.