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Man who inspired 'Fly Away Home' film speaks at Alberta wildlife symposium

Wearing mock bird costumes while running around making engine noises aimed at luring chicks to imprint is something Duff said should be done in the privacy of a backyard.
Whooping cranes flying in the wake of Joe Duff's ultralight

The wildlife enthusiasts and researchers who braved the weather last Saturday to attend a symposium in Bragg Creek entitled Wilderness, Wildlife and Human Interaction were rewarded with an eclectic day of classical music, stunning video footage and even some laughs.

The event, organized by the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI), covered all aspects of wilderness and human interaction – indigenous wildlife, economic, cultural, research, conservation past and present, alternative energy, the management of landscape domestic and wild, and achievable goals.

The intention was also to explore new perspectives aimed at generating what organizers called Plan B; “focused on examining and creating innovative methods of moving from current economic and environmental stalemate and conflict to a sustainable and a healthy planet. Only our imaginations set the limits.”

Elder Charlie Fox (Piitahonista, Eagle Calf) brought the Indigenous perspective to the proceedings.

Fox is an Elder of the Kainai Nations sacred Horn Society and an advocate for the Blackfoot Culture and Language.

His agricultural home environment taught him horsemanship and he holds a Texas A & M Therapeutic Instructor Certificate.

Mike Judd is one of the founding members of a new organization, the Foothills Bison Restoration Society. He outlined their ideas for bringing bison to some of our public wild lands along the eastern slopes.

Wes Olson has worked for more than 30 years with bison, developing an international reputation for his knowledge about both plains and wood bison, and is the author of The Ecological Buffalo, a book that combines nature photography with the story of how the bison fits in to the prairie ecosystem.

Ali Morrison is a classical musician who has spent her life exploring sound and silence. She shared some of her haunting, nature-inspired musical creations.

Fly away home

But it was Joe Duff’s video and commentary that stole the show as the afternoon came to a close. His experience and speaking style reflected the symposium’s focus on creativity and imagination.

After a 25-year career as an advertising photographer, Duff pioneered the use of ultralight aircraft to lead orphaned migratory birds on their journeys along with his partner Bill Lishman.

Lishman made his amateur film about flying around with geese following him and asked Duff to join him in doing more. Duff said yes.

“I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, but . . .” Duff said with a laugh.

He agreed to help for a year. That was 25 years ago.

In nature, young cranes learn the migration route by following the adults. For captive-bred orphan birds, people would need to train them to migrate to survive on their own. 

Wearing mock bird costumes while running around making engine noises aimed at luring chicks to imprint is something Duff said should be done in the privacy of a backyard. The common denominator to these film clips is the participants all seem to be having fun.

“It’s like something out of Monty Python,” he said.

Another slide showed the front of his ultralight sprayed with a foreign-looking substance.

“We learned you never want to fly directly behind a bird. A full-face helmet is recommended.”

Duff and Lishman led 18 Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia, completing the first human-led bird migration, garnering media attention along the way.

That coverage attracted the attention of the scientific community and the idea of using their technique to reintroduce endangered birds spread.

After working with Sony Columbia to produce the major motion picture Fly Away Home and establishing Operation Migration as a registered charity, Duff convinced the US Fish and Wildlife Service that the technique had merit and took on a pilot project guiding whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

They trained orphaned birds to migrate by following the ultralight, thinking it is “mother.”

The captive-raised cranes, even as eggs, “heard” recorded sounds of an ultralight engine, so that when they were born they were already familiar with the noise. The birds were bred and hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. After hatching, the first thing they heard was a recording of a crane's brood call combined with the purr of the small plane's engine.

Team members dressed up as cranes would run around, encouraging the chicks to imprint. Eight weeks after hatching, the birds were following the ultralight as it taxied, and were flying with the aircraft at 80 to 90 days old. 

The cranes learned to surf on the wake created by the ultralight’s wings. The pilots were dressed in the same baggy white suits and had a fake bird beak attached to one arm, adding to the illusion that the plane was a bird.

Duff showed a video clip of a crane flying right under the wing of his ultralight. He said the bird must’ve got bored, which led to it pecking at the wing of the aircraft.

“That’s distressing when you’re flying and you can feel it,” he said.

The birds were later transferred to a wildlife refuge where they were conditioned to follow the baggy-suited humans and purring plane. By fall, they were ready to begin the 1,285-mile journey from Wisconsin to Florida.

Usually flying for a few hours each morning, the migrations would typically make it anywhere from 25 to 100 miles per day, depending on weather conditions, before stopping at private strips.

Duff had glowing praise for the Operation Migration team. None of them had formal training –biological or otherwise – but they became proficient in all the technical aspects of rearing crane chicks and imprinting behaviour.

They had to scout out overnight landing locations days before they were scheduled to arrive with a team of three ultralights, 10 people, motorhomes, and trucks.

He said the random people they chose along the way to approach for permission to land were sometimes taken aback by strangers knocking at their doors.

“It was an amazing experience talking to all these people. It’s a bold ask: ‘Would you mind if we brought a bunch of critically endangered whooping cranes here, along with 10 people, and all our motor homes?’ It’s like the world’s worst mother-in-law story,” he said.

They couldn’t predict what time they’d be arriving, or even what day, but they’d be filling the backyard with aircraft and the front yard with motor homes and need to plug in to power and water lines, etc.

“Oh, and we’d need to use your internet, and that shower looks really nice, and you won’t be able to go down to the field where the birds are, and we could leave the next day or next week,” he went on, to the laughter of the crowd.

In general, he said, the people were unbelievably generous and accommodating.

To illustrate, Duff brought up a picture onscreen showing a table choc-a-block full of homemade pies of every description.

People would move their farm equipment or planes out of the hangers so the crew could park their delicate ultralights indoors, away from the frost.

One bad egg

They had major success, proving their efforts were sustainable when they tracked a female crane that became half of the first successful breeding pair that had learned to migrate through the Operation Migration program. The pair was dubbed The Royal Couple.

Before she could embark on her second breeding season, she was shot by a youth in Indiana trying to impress his girlfriend. He was caught, tried and convicted. The judge fined him one dollar.

This was the only time Duff’s voice was not energetic and infused with enthusiasm.

“That’s the problem with conservation right there. We had probably $50,000 invested in that bird,” he said. “And it only cost a buck to shoot it.”

Success or failure?

In the 1940s there were only 16 whooping cranes in the U.S. The population is now up to 850, Duff said.

From 2001 to 2015 they led a new generation of whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida every year, putting on thousands of miles.

Though the Wisconsin population had grown to 100 by 2015, in 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service withdrew its support of the ultralight-led flights after it was shown that the cranes were struggling with parenting their chicks.

Now in partial retirement, Duff serves as the Executive Director of WildLife Canada Society, a self-funded charity founded and funded by the exploration geologist who was the first to discover diamonds in Canada.

In addition to a number of international wildlife conservation efforts, the Society is currently working on a proposal to reintroduce muskoxen into the area near Churchill, Manitoba, and another to safeguard the habitat of the deep snow mountain caribou in the temperate rainforest of central BC.

The idea behind the reintroduction of muskox to Churchill is to provide an alternate food source for polar bears as their access to traditional prey declines.

The Society also works alongside the Cochrane Ecological Institute in their efforts to rehabilitate orphaned bears.

Duff said the province’s practice of euthanizing orphaned cubs “doesn’t make any sense,” especially when the CEI provides rehabilitation at no cost to the government.

“They do the whole thing for free, basically. It’s a matter of reintroducing these animals – there’s no down side,” he said.

As Duff puts it, he looks for ways to spend his benefactor’s money on conservation projects.

“My job is to find projects that are innovative and spend his money. So I have a great job,” he said with a laugh.

CEI founder Clio Smeeton, who also works with orphaned wildlife, closed the symposium with an impassioned call to action.

Smeeton has worked with animals and conservation issues since 1962. She worked in Africa, B.C. and Alberta, where she was Curator of the Children’s Zoo in Calgary. In 1967, with her parents, Miles and Beryl Smeeton, she established the Wildlife Reserve of Western Canada (now the CEI) and established a branch of the Institute in British Columbia.

Smeeton’s work at the CEI with the swift fox program garnered international attention, prompting other countries to send wildlife experts to Cochrane to train under her.

In Alberta, her work focuses on breeding endangered species for reintroduction and in B.C., on the rehabilitation and release of orphaned wildlife, environmental research and education.

Like the members of Duff’s team, Smeeton’s approach is to rely on hands-on learning as opposed to formal education.

The CEI is funded through charitable donations and the occasional grant – there is no provincial funding. For more information on the work of the CEI or to make a donation, go to


Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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