Airborne Humans Teach Endangered Birds to Migrate


Birds fly along with a human-piloted microlight plane. Photo: Waldrappteam.

Yes, those birds are following that ultralight plane. They're northern bald ibises learning to migrate, and while that might seem a bit strange, there's a very good reason why they're doing it.

The drastic decline in the population of the bald ibis -- once common throughout Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East -- has left conservationists pinning their hopes on breeding the birds in captivity and reintroducing them into the wild. But without parents to teach them migratory routes, the captive birds stand little chance of long-term survival -- unless someone else takes on the task. That's exactly what a group of European scientists are doing, taking to the air themselves in order to lead the flock.The critically endangered species has vanished from Europe and is down to a small wild population in the Middle East. But by establishing a bond from birth with the long-beaked birds, the BBC reports, scientists with the Waldrapp project in Austria become "foster parents" to captive-bred ibis:

As soon as the birds hatch, they are introduced to their new human foster parents. Then for the next few months, the human stand-ins spend almost every waking hour with the birds, feeding them, grooming them and playing with them.... Finally, this bond becomes so strong that the birds are willing to follow their parents anywhere. Even if they are sitting in a microlight.

bald ibis keeper waldrapp photo

Northern bald ibis. Photo: Waldrappteam.

After some fits and starts, the team this year succeeded in getting 14 birds to follow a human keeper -- piloting a powered parachute, a type of microlight plane -- 1,300 kilometers from Austria to Italy in just seven flight days. Now that they've learned the "flight plan," the team hopes the birds will be able to make their way back on their own.

The effort is admittedly an extreme, and labor-intensive, solution to a conservation problem, and the BBC doesn't go into whether the close contact with people could have any negative effects on the birds. Turkey and Syria recently had a shared success in getting captive-bred Turkish bald ibis to join wild Syrian ones in migrating to Ethiopia, but with so few wild birds remaining to be employed in such efforts, letting people lend a hand -- or an artificial wing -- seems worth any potential risk.

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