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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.