Joe Duff, EAA 701603, doesn’t recall a singular event that inspired him to become involved in what would turn into Operation Migration — an organization that has used ultralight aircraft to lead bird migrations throughout the United States and Canada. He just remembers that he started to get bored with his day job as a professional photographer.
“I was a commercial photographer in downtown Toronto at the time,” Joe explained. “My business was fairly successful, but I was getting bored and had done most of what I could achieve in photography. I was looking for something different, I loved flying, and it was an opportunity.”
On Thursday, June 21, Joe will present on his work as an ultralight pilot with Operation Migration as part of the EAA Aviation Museum’s Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.
Joe became a pilot when he was 21 years old, earning his certificate in the Yukon territory of Canada, but stopped flying for a number of years when he began his career as a photographer. However, in the late 1980s, he picked it back up as an ultralight pilot after hearing about this lighter form of flying on the news. It changed the course of his life.
“I could afford an aircraft on my own, and I had a bunch of buddies who were all flying,” Joe said. “It was a terrific couple of years. That’s when I met Bill Lishman, who was the first person to fly with birds. He was attempting to fly with Canada geese, mostly because it was interesting, fun, and entertaining. He made a little film about it that won a lot of awards and it got the scientific community interested in the possibility of using aircraft-led technique for releasing endangered birds.”
Once the scientific community became involved, the idea became more than just a novelty, and serious talks of a migration led by ultralight aircraft emerged. In 1993, Bill and Joe were part of a migration leading Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia using ultralights, which was covered by 20/20 and garnered the interest of Columbia Pictures, ultimately leading to the 1996 film Fly Away Home, starring Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin.
“[The movie] is really what kicked us off and made us successful,” Joe said. “Thereafter we began targeting whooping cranes, which are critically endangered. Back in the 1940s, there were only 15 whooping cranes [in the world.] All those birds migrated from the Northwest Territories of Canada down to Texas. That population was growing, but very slowly. The idea was to start a second population.”
Operation Migration, which was officially formed in 1994 as a nonprofit organization, began doing studies on Sandhill cranes and swans to understand the birds’ migratory patterns. Then in 2000, Joe and the organization started a partnership with nine federal, state, and private organizations called the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. In 2001, all the permits were in place, and Operation Migration began releasing captive-hatched whooping cranes for a planned migration from Wisconsin to Florida with the goal of establishing another population outside of captivity that could eventually self-sustain.
The process of leading a migration begins in the spring with the imprinting process, in which members of Operation Migration dress up in costumes to look like whooping cranes and nurture the freshly-hatched chicks so that the cranes view them as fellow birds and follow them on flights. Primarily using Cosmos Phase II ultralight aircraft, the team starts flying early in the morning and the cranes follow on their wingtips, gliding much of the way.
Usually flying for a few hours each morning, the migrations would typically make it anywhere from 25 to 100 miles per day, depending on the weather conditions, and stop at private strips. Joe said the average length for a migration from Wisconsin to Florida was around 90 days.
Though the Wisconsin whooping crane population had grown to 100 by 2015, thanks to the help of Operation Migration, in 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service withdrew its support of the ultralight-led flights after it was shown that the cranes were struggling with parenting their chicks. While the whooping crane population is still critically endangered, with around 600 birds estimated throughout North America, Operation Migration has helped the species begin to recover and is still working to support the crane population.
“The whole idea was to establish a second population,” Joe said. “You can have a thousand birds migrating from Texas to northern Canada, but if something happens like a disease or chemical spill or strong storm, it can affect that flock. The idea is to spread out your resources and have more than one flock, and the ultralight method we developed allowed them to do that. … Right now we’re trying to introduce birds in a simpler form, keep the population surviving, watch the habitat, and find out what we can do for these birds so they can produce offspring and grow. The eastern migratory population we established is not yet self-sustaining, but we’re working on it.”
Photos courtesy of Joe Duff/Operation Migration