Wednesday 17 October 2018

Birds being trained to follow a plane

Joe Kennedy

A FRIEND, somewhat long in the tooth, says he feels like a McGahern phrase in a BBC radio play called Sinclair that there's "a dead bird in his chimney". This turns up in a new book from Faber and Faber, The Rockingham Shoot, a collection of scripts, a differing drift of past work from the renowned novelist.

The dead bird, my friend feels, is that he is now at an age when he may become forgetful and make wrong moves such as juxtaposing the digits on his debit card.

Last week one bird that should have been a chimney goner was released from an enclosed fireplace having tapped its way down causing some anxiety that a rat might have been cooling off in the heatwave. A soot-encased bundle of feathers was removed to a garden of teeming rain to wash out as an adolescent magpie.

Another black and straggling-feathered bird on news screens as a species teetering on extinction is now hanging in there because of a conservation programme which imprints an aircraft as a false parent on its bird brain.

This is the Northern Bald Ibis (geronticous eremita), a scrawny creature whose breeding pairs now number less than 100 between Morocco and central Europe. The Konrad Institute in Austria, with support from the RSPB, set up a migratory path to Tuscany from a small colony in Scharnstein led by a microlight aircraft.

The ibis rescue programme is not unique. In America, another group of the same genus of circoniformes, sandhill and whooper cranes, has been saved by microlight guiding. Chick numbers had become seriously predated by bobcats and great owls so eggs were incubated and the young trained to imprint on a one-man flying frame which goes south in stages from the Mid-West to Florida. In spring, most of the original small group returned on their own, a considerable success. The bald-headed ibis is in serious need of help but not so the common Eurasian crane (grus grus), a giant bird once highly visible in Ireland, which is impressively independent. I have watched them flying in V-formation like military aircraft high in the clear skies over Extremadura on the Spanish-Portuguese border.

Seen on the ground they are magnificent creatures, up to five feet tall with long legs and necks, walking gracefully, picking over old potato and grain-growing areas. Their trumpeting calls are loud and clear and in spring they perform an amazing courtship dance of ritual leaping and bowing making those deep musical sounds of which Confucius in the Book of Odes (6th Century BC) described as "the crane cries in the nine marshes, its voice carrying to heaven".

In Ireland, "An Corr", the Gaeilge name of the crane of the Celts, was considered sacred, a link to the Afterworld, a creature of magic transformed from the skin of Aoife, princess of the Tuatha de Dannan, with the legendary Crane Bag of the Fianna filled with treasures. Three hundred years ago it stopped coming here having been hunted for its elongated tertial feathers for the millinery trade. So much for magic! There have been sightings in recent years of birds dropping down in Mayo, Cork and Wexford.

Sunday Independent

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