Most people who follow this project think that flying with the birds must be the greatest part of the job. There is no question that the view from the front seat of our aircraft is like nothing else but often we are preoccupied with the mechanics of flying. Our attention is divided between the birds and keeping the aircraft above the critical stall speed. But there is another stage in the training of the birds that is just as interesting, but less demanding.
Right around 80 days of age the birds fledge. That transition is a gradual change from running behind us while extending their immature wings, to making elongated steps as their flapping begins to carry some of their weight. We lead this daily exercise by charging down the runway in what we call high speed taxi training. This phase is a good opportunity to watch the birds in flight mode without having to worry about keeping ourselves alive.
For a while number 10-14 was having problems. When the aircraft arrived for early training she would not come out of the pen. The others would charge out onto the runway eager to follow, while she stayed behind. It is hard to understand what causes that behaviour but it’s not uncommon. In every cohort we have a bird or two that is reluctant to come out. Despite this regular occurrence, we have never been able to figure out exactly why. Some lesson we inadvertently taught or maybe even something that happened when we were not there starts the problem. And each time they miss a lesson, that bad habit is reinforced.
When the gates are opened, most of the birds charge onto the runway. The ground crew will spend a minute or two encouraging the nervous ones to come out but if that takes too long, they close the gates so the training can begin. While the others are getting their exercise, the handlers will coax and cajole the reluctant bird to the front of the pen and then slip him out onto the runway. That extra attention, no matter how gently it is applied, can be enough to make the arrival of the aircraft a fearful event for a wary bird.
A week ago Richard and Geoff spent some time leading the birds in and out of the pen. They did it enough times without the aircraft and the excitement of flying, for it to lose it mystery. During one of the training sessions this week, Brooke took some extra time to train number 10 alone. He led her up and down the runway and fed her grapes as a reward. That extra effort seemed to help.
I trained the birds for two days thereafter and number 10 came out of the pen with the others. She is the youngest, so she can’t yet fly the length of the runway. Her wings are carrying part of the load but she still has to run to keep up. After two or three trips back and forth she lets her wings droop slightly so you can see the black primaries even when they are folded. That is an indication that she is tired but still she follows loyally.
On day two of the training, I took off in hopes of leading at least some of them into the air. However, a few are still too immature to make a complete circuit. Number 7 flew past the end of the runway trying desperately to catch the trike but her stamina gave out and she landed in the tall grass. However, she immediately began making her way back onto the runway through reeds that are over her head. Only four of the birds were able to actually fly back to the runway but the others gathered one-by-one as they manoeuvred through the brush.
Yesterday, Brooke trained the birds again and all seven came out of the pen together. They all followed him like we knew what we were doing. In the end, we don’t really know what caused number 10 to be wary of training or what portion of the cure we applied actually worked. But it is good to see her right beside the aircraft and we charge down the runway.