Wildlife: Lead Us Not Into Power Lines

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Wildlife: Lead Us Not Into Power Lines

An ultralight pilot teaches birds to deliver themselves south
By Williams. Florence

Last fall, Canadian pilot William Lishman landed a rickety ultralight aircraft near Warrenton, Virginia, with 18 Canada geese tailing him like well-trained dogs. The bearded, rail-thin 55-year-old had raised the honkers on his farm in Blackstock, Ontario, taught them to follow his lead, and with help from his airborne partner, Joe Duff, escorted them 400 miles south on their inaugural migratory flight. (In the spring they flew back to Canada on their own.) The feat turned the sculptor and amateur biologist into a celebrity, with Columbia Pictures pitching $350,000 at him for movie rights.

The only discordant note was a question heard soon after the backslapping stopped: nice stunt, but what good was it? These days Lishman, hoping to answer that, is looking into using the same techniques to teach safe migration routes to captive-bred specimens of North America's most endangered bird, the whooping crane. As a next step he's leaving this month, with 41 radio-tagged Canada geese in tow, on a second flight to Virginia.

Lishman is schlepping geese again because they share with sandhill and whooping cranes the trait of "imprinting" migration behavior from their parents. He believes cranes can be taught to fly their historic U.S.-to-Canada migration paths just as easily as geese, but before he can get permission to take off with captive-bred whoopers he'll have to demonstrate that his methods work with geese and sandhills. The idea is worth pursuing, wildlife officials say, since attempts to introduce cranes to the wild (where at last count some 160 survive) have been only marginally successful, partly because the tyros lack necessary survival skills--including safe migration know-how--when they hit the real world.

Lishman's ideas have tantalized U.S. crane experts. "It may seem off the wall, but at this point we're grasping for anything that might work," says Jim Lewis, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based head of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Whooping Crane Recovery Project. Canadian wildlife officials remain leery, however, wondering whether Father Goose is more showboater than scientist. Lishman plans to follow his latest flight with a report that, ideally, will end their doubts. "After that," he says buoyantly, "we hope to get the permits to work with sandhill cranes for next summer."

Lishman probably never dreamed that things would go this far when, in his forties, he started building gliders and raising geese. The early days were rough going indeed, as he bopped around over his farm with jerry-built craft and baffled goslings. On last year's $200,000 run, however, Lishman migrated in style in a $15,000, 250-pound French Cosmos Trike aluminum aircraft, specially rigged to allow him to coast along at "bird speed," 30 miles per hour. He also had a ground crew and a chaser aircraft--all linked by cellular phone and radio. The entourage hit Virginia in less than a week.

In addition to doubting Lishman's research, Canadian crane experts say they don't want lost cranes wandering around the countryside; already farmers complain of crop damage caused by sandhill and whooping cranes. Another concern, strange as it may sound, is the potential for an avian identity crisis. The goslings, rather than thinking of Lishman as a goose, may start thinking of themselves as aircraft. "We already have nuisance sandhills hanging around at airports," says John Williamson, Ontario region enforcement chief for the Canadian Wildlife Service. "What happens when they start thinking every airplane is Mum?"

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