Bald Ibis

Under a wing

Print edition : December 12, 2014

The birds following their foster parents who are on board the microlight. Photo: The Waldrapp team

The northern bald ibis in flight. Photo: The Waldrapp team

The northern bald ibis. With its featherless crown, the northern bald ibis bird looks like a vulture. It has a curved beak, long legs and black plumage. Photo: The Waldrapp team

The flights of up to 301 kilometres non-stop and an altitude of 2,450 metres above mean sea level are considered a record performance. Photo: The Waldrapp team

Foster parents Corinna Esterer and Anne-Gabriela Schmalstieg, students of Vienna University. Once the chicks have imprinted on a person, they get bonded to him or her. The birds follow the foster parents wherever they go. Photo: The Waldrapp team

Over urban dwellings, villages, meadows, lakes, valleys and mountain ranges, on their way to Tuscany. Photo: The Waldrapp team

Johannes Fritz, leader of the Waldrapp team. He launched the Waldrapp project in 2001 with the support of the Vienna Zoo and other partners. Photo: The Waldrapp team

Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist and naturalist , . Recently, she initiated the signing of an agreement to support the reintroduction of the bald ibis in Europe. Photo: The Waldrapp Team

There were 14 stopovers for the birds to rest. Photo: The Waldrapp team

Birds following the microlight. During the flight, the position of each bird was recorded at close intervals by GPS data logger. The journey was filmed by a TV team in a helicopter. Photo: The Waldrapp team

The flight was in four stages. The first was across the Alps. Because of heavy headwinds, this stage was especially difficult. Photo: The Waldrapp team

Over urban dwellings, on their way to Tuscany. Photo: The Waldrapp team

Over Tuscany, where birds of different species have their migratory destinations. Photo: The Waldrapp team

In Tuscany. The young birds can now live independently as migratory birds. Photo: The Waldrapp team

SEPTEMBER 4 this year marked a historic flight. In what has excited the scientific community and conservationists no end, 14 northern bald ibises, following their “foster parents” on board microlight aircraft, flew from Salzburg in Austria over the Alps and the Apennine to reach Tuscany in Italy. The 11-day, 860-kilometre, human-led migration was a lesson in survival: the birds, belonging to one of the world’s most endangered species, had lost their migratory tradition 350 years ago. The astounding achievement is the result of pioneering scientific experiments in reintroducing the birds as a migratory species in Europe. At the wintering area of Laguna di Orbetello in Tuscany, the young birds met other members of their species and can now live independently as migratory birds. The flights of up to 301 km non-stop and an altitude of 2,450 metres above mean sea level are considered a record performance. The journey was filmed by a TV team in a helicopter. The flight path of each bird was recorded by GPS data logger.

With its featherless crown, the northern bald ibis ( Geronticus eremita) looks like a vulture. Bald ibises have curved beaks, long legs and black plumage. Around 30 species of ibises are spread around the globe. Once upon a time, their European strongholds were Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Hunting for their meat and eggs and the loss of habitat made them almost extinct. Small colonies of the birds existed outside Europe, in Morocco, Syria and Turkey. A handful of the Moroccan descendants were brought to the Vienna Zoo around 1990 and were bred in captivity. Slowly their numbers increased.

Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist studying the greylag goose, the ancestor of the domesticated goose and the largest of the species in the wild, stumbled upon the northern bald ibis in the Vienna Zoo. The ancient bird, presumably immortalised in Egyptian hieroglyphs, became his passion. He knew the birds had a genetic disposition to migrate. Driven by ambition to reintroduce and conserve them in Europe, Fritz launched the Waldrapp (German name for the bird) project in 2001 with the support of the Vienna Zoo and other partners. He knew that if the birds were to flourish in the wild, migration was inevitable. So he tried to find out scientific ways to induce them to migrate.

Fritz was a doctoral student in biology at Konrad Lorenz Research Station, a core facility with the University of Vienna, founded in 1973. The Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, an internationally acclaimed Austrian biologist, is considered the father of ethology, the science of animal behaviour. A fascinating study of his is that certain types of birds such as geese and ducks imprint on the person to whom they have the first contact after hatching. In zoological parlance, imprint is how a young animal or bird comes to recognise another animal, person or thing as a parent or a thing of habitual trust.

Once the chicks have imprinted on a person, they get bonded to him or her. The birds develop an irresistible drive to follow these foster parents wherever they go. They play a crucial role in grooming the birds. Fritz and his team were to employ this method to train the ibises to migrate. The human-led migration of the bald ibis became a reality for the first time in 2004. It was repeated annually with greater success.

Dr Kurt Kotrschal, who succeeded Konrad Lorenz in 1990, had developed a free-flying colony of ibises with Moroccan descendants in Vienna. He believed that the birds could be trained to revive their migratory traditions. To his great surprise, in 1997, some of the birds flew away from the colony. They were aimless and frantic. After a few days, the birds were found in the Netherlands and Belgium, and some in Russia. Some of them were dead.

In an email to this author, Dr Kurt said: “At the research station, we worked on the social behaviour and physiology of the goose and the raven. When we opted for a research model, the bald ibis was chosen, since it is a colonial breeder. There were plenty of reproducing birds in captivity and the free-flying colony was doing well.”

Kurt said the colony method was adopted by Konrad Lorenz to carefully hand-rear the birds and to socialise them with foster parents. “It is true that some birds flew off in 1997. Losing some birds every year is normal. Young birds and many others roam large areas seemingly in dispersal and in search of other colonies. Research is under way about their behavioural aspects. Some of the birds are fitted with GPS trackers. The results are being analysed,” he said.

Inspirational movie

Fritz considers Kurt his mentor. In Skype talks with this author, Fritz narrated his experiences with the bald ibis research. “I am indebted to him [Kurt] for encouraging and guiding me in my research activity,” he said. Serendipity struck in the form of a film Fly Away Home he saw in 1997. Produced by Columbia Pictures, the movie portrays how a young girl and her father help Canadian geese chicks, who imprint on her, to migrate from Ontario to North Carolina with the help of microlight aircraft. It is based on the real-life experiences of Bill Lishman, a Canadian sculptor and artist, who in 1986 started training geese to follow his microlight and succeeded in leading their migration in 1993.

“The movie fired my imagination sky high,” Fritz said. He decided to adopt the same method to induce the bald ibis to migrate. The challenge was formidable. Experiments with geese were confined to an existing population. But in the case of bald ibises, it was difficult to reintroduce them to their migratory habits. The birds were totally unaware of the places their ancestors had migrated to.

Fritz was excited to know that birds of different species had their migratory destinations (wintering) in Tuscany. The place, one of the pillars of the Renaissance era, is noted for its landscapes and artistic legacy. Fritz got bald ibises from the Vienna Zoo for the Waldrapp project.

Five days after the eggs are hatched, the chicks are separated from the mothers. The foster parents spend most of their time with the birds and even feed them by hand. They wear yellow shirts, which apparently attract the bird to them, and headgear with an ibis-beak design.

Fritz himself became a foster parent, hand-reared the chicks and took them to the campsite to get them accustomed to the flying machine. They perched on the wings of the microlight. Fritz and his team were extremely cautious in moving with the birds. The campsite was free of predators and unnecessary human interference. Feasibility studies were done on selecting the stopovers, especially meadows and airfields and habitats. Studies were conducted on the weather and logistics and on how many hours the birds could fly at a stretch. Despite being prone to airsickness, Fritz got a pilot licence and took many flights by himself and with the members of the team.

In 2002, he flew for a small distance with the birds by way of experiment. Preparations were made for a flight in 2003, but it did not succeed. The juvenile ibises were like naughty schoolchildren running helter-skelter, said Fritz. They flew for around 10 km following the microlight but returned to the spot from where they had taken off.

But that did not disappoint Fritz. The Waldrapp team analysed the reasons for the failure and made elaborate preparations for the next year. Fritz mapped a flying route through the Alps pass, the Adriatic seashore and the Apennine mountains to Tuscany, where the lagoons and offshore climate are congenial for the birds.

The 2004 experiment met with success. From the Scharnstein airfield in upper Austria on August 17, 2004, the birds flew 860 km in 37 days over urban dwellings, villages, meadows, lakes, valleys and the snow-clad Alps mountain ranges to reach Tuscany. There were 14 stopovers (stages) for the birds to rest. The average flight distance of the microlight with the birds was 62 km a day. The mission started with 10 birds, but three of them had to be resigned from the group after falling sick or because of injury. In Tuscany, the birds were well-protected and monitored with the help of GPS trackers. But they hardly associated with other species.

The missions were repeated every year from 2005. The distance varied from 865 km to 1,205 km.

About the birds’ flight in 2007, Chelsea Wald, an American environmental journalist, wrote, “Although the ibises looked like vultures on the ground, the resemblance disappeared in the air. In flight their long, curved bills jutted forward, their black wings shimmered purple and green.” Not all the birds engaged in the missions reached the destination. But in 2009, all the 11 birds that followed Fritz reached safely in Tuscany.

Return from Tuscany

July 21, 2011, marks an unforgettable chapter in the Waldrapp mission. The scientists achieved what they were waiting for anxiously. That was when a lone northern bald ibis, named Goja, returned to Burghausen in southern Germany from Tuscany. The return signified the full circle of a migration.

Migrating birds generally return after the wintering season is over and when the climate in the nesting area improves. The ibises reach Tuscany in September and stay there till March-April before returning to their nesting-breeding area. Sometimes the chicks too follow the parents to Tuscany.

Though many aspects of the migration of birds are still not clear to humans, it is believed that the birds remember the migration routes they cover. To the great surprise of Fritz, Goja invented a route of its own for return, flying over places totally unknown to it. In 2012 and 2013, 12 birds, and early this year 14 birds returned to Austria from Tuscany. They too took their own routes to return, deviating from the microlight route.

In the following year, 2012, Goja started breeding. Goja became the first breeding migratory ibis in 350 years in Europe. But in October 2012, to the disappointment of the Waldrapp team, it was shot dead by a hunter.

Illegal bird hunting is a problem for bird conservation in Europe. Out of the 106 birds that reached Tuscany from 2004 to 2014, 60 have been lost, two-thirds of them to hunters. But in October this year, at an event held at Parco Natura Viva in Italy, Jane Goodall, an internationally renowned primatologist and naturalist, initiated the signing of an agreement with the Italian Hunting Association and the European Union, one of the foremost funding agencies for the Waldrapp mission, to support the reintroduction of the bald ibis in Europe.

The members of the hunting association have become patrons for the reintroduction of the ibis in Europe. One of them adopted a bird called Artemis, named after the Greek goddess of hunting. That had a special significance: the bird was Goja’s offspring.

From 2012, the Waldrapp team has been monitoring the birds fitted with GPS trackers. Studies are conducted on their daily speed, altitude and accelometric data (body movement data). Technical support for the collection of data and their analysis comes from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Upper Bavaria.

Landmark achievement

The latest human-led migration was a landmark achievement. The foster parents for the mission were Corinna Esterer and Anne-Gabriela Schmalstieg, students of Vienna University.

The flight that began from Salzburg, a United Nations-declared heritage site in Austria, was in four stages. The first was across the Alps. Because of heavy headwinds, this stage was especially difficult. “It was probably the most difficult in my flying career,” said Fritz.

How did the juvenile birds face the turbulent weather? They were fully equipped to meet the situation, though it was totally unfamiliar, he said. During the flight, the position of each bird was recorded at close intervals by GPS data logger. Thousands of data points have given valuable information for the next mission.

Said Dr Kurt about the mission: “I am sure human-led migration will be a great success for the reintroduction of the bald ibis in Europe. Ability to migrate does come simply with their genes and partly out of learning. Johannes Fritz has proved that the bald ibis can revive its lost migratory traditions. In this respect it is an astounding feat. The public in Italy, especially the local people, are supporting the project and there are protests against poachers.”

Dr Christopher Bowden, an expert on the bald ibis with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, United Kingdom, said “the project is making important contribution to the successful reintroduction of the bald ibis. The efforts in these lines are genuinely conservation-oriented.”

The budget for the human-led migration is about €150,000 a year. At present the European Commission is co-financing the project. The International Advisory Group on the bald ibis coordinates the activities of different groups working with the ibis in different countries.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.

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