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Flight of the navigator

The first day of the fall migration is a long game of tag, hide-and-seek and follow-the- leader, with stubborn birds refusing to leave home and others flying too fast or too slow, getting spooked by highway traffic or just wandering where they please. But Bill Lishman, better known as Father Goose for his groundbreaking flights with birds, knows it’s all part of the learning process.

Artist, environmentalist, innovator and aviator, Lishman shares his stories in April during The Royal Canadian Geographical Society spring lecture. He gained international attention in 1993 for leading a flock of 18 Canada geese hatched in captivity by ultralight aircraft to northern Virginia from his home outside Toronto. The flock later completed an unassisted return migration, a story recounted in the film Fly Away Home.

More recently, Lishman has turned his talents to an endangered species. His Operation Migration team led a group of whooping cranes from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida late last year. Lishman flew the first few legs of the journey with the cranes but soon found "they didn't need me."

In 1942, there were only 21 whooping cranes in the world. The population nests in Wood Buffalo National Park, which crosses the Alberta — Northwest Territories border, and has since grown to 220. The challenge for Lishman and his team was to teach cranes hatched from this flock their historical migration route, encouraging them to form a second population on Florida's Gulf Coast.

On Dec. 13, 2005, Operation Migration pilots dressed in white bird costumes escorted 19 whooping cranes to northwestern Florida, where an exuberant crowd had gathered at Dunnellon Airport to watch them pass overhead. The project will likely continue for several more years until there are approximately 125 birds in the new population and about 25 breeding pairs. This will ensure a healthy flock of rather welleducated, if undisciplined, whooping cranes.

"We are often asked why we dedicate our time and effort to save whooping cranes," Lishman says. "As aviators, we have a love for the creatures that taught us the art of flying. Now that they need our help, how can we refuse?"

Join Lishman on April 19 and 20 at Ottawa's Centrepointe Theatre and April 25 and 26 at Toronto's Ontario Science Centre.

— Shannon Long

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