Monday, December 4, 2023

How to teach birds to fly

If you look up first thing in the morning these days in the Villamartín area of ​​Cádiz, you may see something that is not seen every day. A yellow paramotor followed by a flock of birds. There are 35 hermit ibis, a bird that has been extinct in Europe since the 17th century. They have been hand-raised in Germany by Austrian Johannes Fritz’s team, who has been dedicated to saving this species from extinction for twenty years. This work involves teaching them to migrate. To do this, it has a fundamental element: the instinct of birds to follow and trust the first being they see when they hatch. It is called the attachment principle and in this case it awoke to two young volunteers who have been “their mothers” since they were born, in March. Now, each one travels together with a pilot in a paramotor, with their striking yellow vests, so that the birds follow them calmly: “If my mother is good and goes on this machine, it means that this machine is good,” explains Fran Prieto. , from the animal care department of the Bioparc of Valencia, one of the members of the project’s ground team, who has spoken with Àngels Barceló in the section of the Ministry of Science and Technology of Day by day. Scientists are confident that next year the birds will be able to make the trip alone.

Hermitage ibis chick.

Hermit ibises need to migrate away from the cold of northern Europe in winter. Fritz had been guiding them with his paramotor to Italy, towards the Tuscany area, for 15 years. A population of birds now makes that trip autonomously. This year, for the first time, its destination is Spain, in a project that in our country is directed by the Zoobotánico de Jerez, but in which other institutions participate, such as the Bioparc or the Doñana Biological Station (CSIC).

According to Fran Prieto, the work of the ground team, made up of 14 people, consists of traveling by road each stage of the trip and setting up the aviary and the human camp to rest before embarking on another day. The trip is very dependent on the winds, they cannot fly with too strong wind or in the absence of wind. In addition, it is very important to have a landing area planned: they can be airfields, but it is important that there are no power lines nearby. They can’t be airports because they have too much air traffic. They choose mown fields, flat farms, grape drying fields… In total, the birds will have traveled 2,300 kilometers when they arrive in Jerez.

In the time they have been traveling they have lost three animals, two in Tarragona, between Bellvei and Roquetes, and another in Albacete, a specimen that has surely returned to the previous stop, which was Olocau, in Valencia. Fran Prieto trusts that they have survived, because they are strong animals. And ornithology fans in those areas can notify the team on social media if they see them. They are very striking birds: large birds, with a long, curved red beak, and a tuft of black hairs.

The journey is almost over. There is a sedentary resident population of about 250 hermit ibises in Cádiz, which are still supported, but are already breeding in the wild. The hope is that the population raised in Austria will mix with those from Cádiz, that they will communicate with each other and that some will begin to migrate autonomously, without human mothers. And that, over time, they will not be so rare to see.


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