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Rare birds have lost their sense of direction

The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) is a migratory bird which favours barren and rocky habitats, usually those close to running water. It is a non-wading member of the Ibis family and is notable for its un-feathered face and long red bill which is curved. It breeds in colonies on cliff ledges and mountainsides and feeds on lizards, insects and small animals.

This striking bird was once common in the Middle East, north Africa, southern and central Europe. A fossil of a northern bald ibis which dates back to 1.8 million years ago has been discovered in Europe. But the species left the continent almost 400 years ago and is now critically endangered. Only 500 wild birds are thought to remain in Morocco and just 10 in Syria where the species was rediscovered in 2002.

It is believed that habitat loss, hunting and pesticides have all played a significant role in the demise of the species.

Returning the northern bald ibis to Europe

Conservationists have been working to reintroduce the northern bald ibis to Europe. But they encountered a problem – the birds had lost their sense of direction and didn’t know how to migrate south!

The scientists evolved a fabulous way to overcome this issue. Young birds which were born in captivity didn’t know how to find their wintering grounds in Turkey but would follow their human foster parents. So, the foster mums were flown across the alps in a microlight to lead the birds over the mountains!

Five years of human-led migration

This year is the fifth occasion on which young birds have been hatched in captivity and then led to their wintering grounds by a foster parent in a light aircraft. The project is the first example of any species being helped by human-led migration. The birds only need to be shown the route once and are then able to navigate their own way each year.

More than 100 individuals now live in Germany and Austria. New generations of chicks have been born in the wild and have taken the migration route which their parents learnt from humans.

Inspired by a movie

The project’s leader, Fritz, took his inspiration from the 1996 movie Fly Away Home in which a flock of orphaned geese is led on their migratory path by a microlight. Fritz was working on his PhD at the time the film was released. He was trying to help northern bald ibis chicks which had been born in a zoo. The young birds possessed the instinct to migrate but did not have an older bird to lead them and so died on their journey south. Fritz wondered if he could help them by copying the idea from the film.

A feasibility study took ten years and was part-funded by the EU. It was then possible to make the ideas in the film a reality and the ensuing project has proved to be a huge success. There is now a viable population of birds living wild in Europe and more has been learnt about how migratory birds save energy in flight using their V formation.

It is hoped that human-led migration will eventually facilitate the reintroduction of further species which are endangered.


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