Bird migration

Flying with bald ibises

Print edition : November 27, 2015

En route the human-led migration of the northern bald ibis from Salzburg to Tuscany. Photo: Waldrappteam

The journey over the Alps. Photo: Waldrappteam

The biologist Johannes Fritz's children with the birds. Photo: Waldrappteam

The Waldrapp team. Photo: Waldrappteam

EVERY year since 2005 scientists and conservationists have repeated with astounding success the human-led migration of the northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) from Salzburg in Austria to Tuscany in Italy. This is done with the aim of reintroducing the migratory tradition of the bird, an endangered species. Fledglings from zoo breeds are imprinted on human foster parents and trained to follow a microlight aircraft, which leads them from the northern foothills of the Alps to Tuscany, a haven for different species of migratory birds (“Under a wing”, Frontline, December 12, 2014). In September this year, too, 28 birds followed their foster parents, college students Anne-Gabriela Schmalstieg and Pablo Przesang, who were on a microlight.

The architect of the project is Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist, who launched the Waldrapp (German name for the bird) project in 2001 with the support of the Vienna Zoo and other partners. Inspired by a movie Fly Away Home, where a young woman and her father teach motherless birds to migrate, Fritz and his team have used the imprinting of young ibises to train them to migrate.

On August 22, 30 birds set off from Mauterndorf, a private airfield near Vienna, and flew to Tuscany. The climate in Tuscany is congenial for the birds. The 794-km journey took 18 days and involved five stages. They average speed of the microlights was 45 km per hour. Two of the birds got ill and their journey had to be abandoned.

It is hoped that many of them will fly back to Austria after wintering by March-April next year. Migrating birds generally return after the wintering season is over and when the climate in the nesting area improves. The flight path of each bird is recorded by GPS data logger so as to study their movements and return path.

The first return of a northern bald ibis after the project began was on July 21, 2011, 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.

Human-led migration of birds has captured wide public attention. The journey offers a stupendous view of the snow-clad Alps and has been filmed by TV crews following the aircraft. The spokesman for the Waldrapp team said that the way the aircraft and the birds crossed the mountains was unprecedented. The Waldrapp team hopes that in future ibises would start migration without human inducement. Fritz said 2015 marked a milestone in the Waldrapp team’s objective to reintroduce the northern bald ibis in Europe.

G. Shaheed

(The author is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.)

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