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Our Story

As a young boy, William Lishman joined the Royal Canadian Air Cadets because he wanted to fly. But a mandatory eye test revealed he was colour blind, stopping him from becoming a conventional pilot. So, he decided to become an unconventional one. He first learned to fly hang gliders, then followed in the footsteps of the father of ultralights, John Moody, and converted his Easy Riser hang glider into one of the first ultralight aircraft.

After three years of trial and error, in 1988 Lishman succeeded in leading a flock of 12 Canada geese on flights around his home. In doing so, he made ornithological and aviation history. His first formation flights with the geese were documented in his first film, C'mon Geese, which won six international awards.

In 1990 while working with Dr. William Sladen from the Airlie Center in Warrenton, Virginia, Lishman set out to attempt the first cross-country migration with Canada Geese. However, permits were not forthcoming and the project was curtailed.

In the fall of 1992, Dr. William Sladen hosted a meeting at the Airlie Center between Dr. George Gee and Dr. David Ellis from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Dr George Archibald from the International Crane Foundation, and William Lishman. It was decided that the best use of Lishman's research would be to apply it toward establishing a backup migratory flock of Whooping cranes. Before any work could be conducted with Whooping cranes the group of scientists needed proof that birds could learn migration routes from airplanes. The first step: A experiment with non-endangered Canada geese.

In 1993 proper permits where obtained and funds were borrowed from the Lishman Companies to attempt this ground-breaking migration experiment. At that time Lishman realized there would be only one attempt to make this experiment work and so he enlisted his friend, and fellow ultralight pilot, Joe Duff as a back-up pilot. Together they raised and led 18 Canada geese 400 miles from Lishman's property in Ontario to the Airlie Center in Virginia. Those birds returned to Lishman's home airstrip in the spring of 1994 - once again making history and setting the stage for further ultralight-led migration studies.

To raise funds for future migration studies, Lishman and Duff formalized their efforts in 1994 by founding Operation Migration, a non-profit organization registered as a charity in both Canada and the United States. Since then, the Operation Migration team has conducted numerous migration studies leading three species of birds.

In 1995, Lishman and Duff assisted in the making of Columbia Pictures' hit film Fly Away Home, which was directed by Carroll Ballard. Much of the film was inspired by Lishman's autobiography, Father Goose, and many of the shots were re-makes of C'mon Geese.

Today, over 40 Whooping cranes are migrating in eastern North America brought about by the efforts of Operation Migration and their partners in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

Questions and Answers

Who runs Operation Migration?

Operation Migration has a volunteer Board of Directors, with co-founder, William Lishman serving as Chairman. Directors include George Archibald, Dewitt (Deke) Clark, Alicia Craig, Jane Dana, Joseph Duff as C.E.O., Douglas Hykle, and Mark Woolgar. Chris Danilko is the friendly voice that answers the telephone and takes care of bookkeeping duties.

How are the projects funded?

In order to continue our work, we need your help. We are looking for financial support from corporate sponsors, individuals and grants.

Why do we need to teach birds to migrate?

Most waterfowl learn the migration route and its destination wintering area from their parents. If birds are orphaned or raised in captivity and then released, they will not migrate. They join the resident population and fight for survival in the harsh northerly winters.

All of this is a particular concern for endangered species. To ensure their survival, birds are often raised in captivity. Once mature, the healthy birds can be released into the wild; however, they need to be taught a safe migratory route.

In the past, several methods including cross-fostering were tried without success. Many believe the techniques developed by Operation Migration offer the only hope for re-establishing migratory flocks of several endangered species.

What is aircraft-led migration?

This technique relies on the birds' natural instinct called imprinting. Imprinting means the just-hatched waterfowl chick immediately trusts the first object it sees and follows the object. As soon as the chicks hatch, they bond with their parents and become inseparable. The OM team acts as surrogate parents, helping the birds imprint on the aircraft and conditioning them to fly with it. Later, when the birds are mature, they are led south by the OM team on a pre-determined route to a safe wintering site.

How do we get the birds to follow the aircraft?

Waterfowl eggs, raised in captivity, are collected and placed in incubators. The eggs are flown to the captive-rearing location where they are turned three times daily to simulate what happens in the wild. At this time, the imprinting process begins. The handlers play a recording of an aircraft engine to the eggs when turning them.

When the birds hatch, they first see a waterfowl puppet head. The type of puppet depends on the type of waterfowl that are hatching-Sandhill crane, Canada geese, etc. The baby birds are placed under heat lamps until they are strong enough to start exercising.

After a few days, the birds are led to a "circle pen" for initial taxi-training with the ultralight aircraft. Again, the birds hear recorded engine sounds but this time, they also hear natural brood calls.

As the birds mature and develop flight feathers, they exercise regularly, following the handler and aircraft up and down the runway. Their first flight is behind the ultralight: as it lifts into the air, the young birds follow. The flock is led on flights daily, weather permitting, building their strength and endurance for the autumn migration. When the time comes, the birds follow the ultralight aircraft, as they would their parents, on a pre-determined route south.

How does dominance affect the aircraft-led flock?

The structure of a flock is an important factor that we consider when trying to condition birds to follow our aircraft. Each group of birds, usually starting with a family unit, has a dominance structure or "pecking order." This is true about every social species, including humans.

In the avian world, the structure is established by aggressive behaviour. Larger birds monopolize the food source leaving others to fend for themselves. This is nature's way of ensuring the survival of the strongest and it also applies when the birds are airborne.

The wave generated by the lead bird forms a "V"--the typical chevron formation of geese and cranes. The most aggressive and hardiest bird takes the lead or point position. With each down-beat of that bird's wings, air is forced out and rolls off the wingtip, creating a vortex much like the wake behind a boat. The other birds can sense this nuance in the air and surf on it, making the job of flying slightly easier. Each bird in order adds to the wake, assisting the birds behind, from strongest to weakest and creating one cadence, one flock. With this method, a group of birds of differing abilities can fly at a constant speed with a common endurance.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not benevolent behaviour. The dominance structure sets the parameters of the flock and allows it to stay together. The lead bird is not trying to assist weaker flock mates but, more accurately, competing. The "V" works like a bicycle race: the rider in second place will stay behind the leader, working in his slip stream and waiting for him to tire before stealing the lead.

When leading birds with an aircraft, we have to help establish their order, ensuring that we are the most dominant so we can dictate the direction. In order to do so, we monitor the birds' natural dominance and move them from group-to-group based on collected data.

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