Life

The airborne exploits of Father Goose

D’ARCY JENISH May 27 1996
Life

The airborne exploits of Father Goose

D’ARCY JENISH May 27 1996

On a brisk spring morning, Bill Lishman is preparing cappuccino in the bright, spacious kitchen of his $400,000 underground home. As he pours a cup of the rich coffee, the 57-year-old sculptor, who lives in the village of Blackstock, Ont., 80 km northeast of Toronto, talks exuberantly about Fly Away Home, a full-length Hollywood feature film based on his unique work with Canada geese. The movie, set for release next fall, tells the story of an eccentric Ontario artist and his daughter who teach a flock of Canada geese to fly behind an ultralight aircraft and then lead the birds on a 700-mile migration to North Carolina. The film, which grafts fictional events onto the real-life Lishman story, is intended as family entertainment. But Lishman hopes it provides viewers with something else—a sense of the exhilaration he experiences while flying with wild birds. “They understand the air,” he says. “They can feel it. When I’m up there with them, I get a sense of their world. I lose the words to describe what it feels like.”

Artist, naturalist and environmentalist, Lishman is, above all, an original. He has created massive sculptures of Stonehenge and lunar spacecraft, and he designed and built his family’s home—seven igloo-shaped rooms made of concrete, linked by vaulted corridors and buried beneath tons of dirt. But it is his airborne exploits that have garnered the most attention. Last fall, Lishman published his autobiography, Father Goose: The Adventures of a Wildlife Hero. And now, a team of Canadian and American wildlife biologists is examining the possibility of using his techniques in the battle to save the rare whooping crane—an effort involving the sort of mainstream scientists who initially scoffed at Lishman’s approach. “When he first talked about leading birds around with ultralights in the late ’80s, people just rolled their eyes,” recalls Claire Mirande, curator of birds with the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation. “But it may be the thing that saves the whoopers.”

Hollywood displayed none of the skepticism of the scientific community. Several studios approached Lishman about buying the rights to his story after the ABC television program 20/20 aired a documentary about him in November, 1993. He had just completed his first migration, leading a flock of 18 geese—who would not fly south on their own because migrating is learned rather than instinctive behavior—on a 400-mile journey from his home to a nature retreat in Virginia. Lishman eventually signed with Los Angeles-based Columbia Tri-Star, which turned the project over to director Carroll Ballard, whose previous credits include The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf “What sold me on making the movie,” Ballard told Maclean’s, “was simply the character of Bill Lishman. He’s a very creative, energetic, one-of-a-kind individual.”

With his scruffy grey beard and unruly ash-colored hair, the tall, slender Lishman has a slightly unkempt look. He walks briskly, leaning forward as though perpetually pressed for time. And his autobiography makes it clear that he has led a busy, unconventional life. “People who’ve read the book ask me how I could do so many things,” Lishman says with a chuckle. “I tell them ‘Hell, I left half the things out.’ ”

Raised on a farm east of Toronto, Lishman was a rebellious teen who turned an adolescent interest in wood carving into a career as a metal sculptor. His wife, Paula, meanwhile, developed an original method for knitting and weaving with fur and used it to build a lucrative business employing about 165 people, allowing Lishman to pursue his eclectic interests. In 1978, Lishman began to fly ultralight aircraft—which some pilots describe as lawn chairs with wings and small engines. Then came the fateful day in the fall of 1985 when Lishman, swooping low over a farmer’s field in his ultralight, inadvertently startled a flock of ducks. They took off, and Lishman found himself flying amidst thousands of quacking wildfowl, who ignored the unusual object in their midst. “The air was full of ducks,” he wrote in his autobiography, “in front, below, above, behind, some in ragged chevrons, some in amorphous clusters, wings flashing in the light. The thrill was indescribable.”

That brief but exhilarating flight changed Lishman’s life. Over the next three summers, he spent hundreds of hours trying in vain to train geese to follow him in his ultralight. His plans were dashed one year when a heavy snowfall caused the roof of a storage shed to collapse and crush his aircraft. Another time he crashed into a tree, although he escaped unharmed.

Finally, in July, 1988, he coaxed a flock of 12 geese to fly behind an ultralight—largely because of a natural phenomenon called imprinting. Newly hatched goslings become emotionally attached to the first moving object they see, usually their mother. They can also imprint on humans, forming a student-mentor relationship. With help from his sons, Aaron and Geordie, and daughter Carmen (now 23, 21 and 12, respectively), Lishman would keep the eggs in an incubator until they hatched and then spend hours acting as a surrogate parent for the goslings. He and his children taught the birds to follow them on foot, on a motorcycle, and ultimately in an ultralight.

Despite that success, it took another five years of trial and error before Lishman and his assistant, Joseph Duff, a 46-year-old photographer, attempted their first migration in October, 1993. The next year, they embarked on a more ambitious journey—700 miles to a refuge in South Carolina with 36 birds in tow. Last fall, they returned to the same centre with 30 geese.

The migrations required ground support and good weather, Lishman says. A convoy of boats followed him and Duff across Lake Ontario in case their ultralights ran into mechanical problems or foul weather. A team in trucks hauled pens and feed for the birds, which could fly up to four hours a day and cover about 130 miles. Arriving at the winter refuges was exciting enough. But best of all was the birds’ return in spring. Lishman says that the 1994 flock disappeared three days after landing in South Carolina, likely because they had been scared off by alligators or bobcats. In mid-April, 1995, he received a call from a government wildlife officer in Niagara Falls, N.Y., who had identified one of the birds by its numbered neckband. “It was the first sign we’d had of these geese in months,” says Lishman. “We were going to go to Niagara Falls to pick him up, but before we could leave 29 more arrived back home. Then the next day, the one from Niagara Falls showed up. It just totally amazed us.”

Last summer, Lishman trained a new flock of geese to fly behind his ultralight—this time to star in Fly Away Home, which was shot at several locations in southern Ontario. To bring the story to the big screen, Ballard and his scriptwriters created a fictional father-daughter saga about rekindled love. American actor Jeff Daniels plays a sculptor who loses touch with his daughter for nine years after divorcing his wife. She returns to her father at age 13, and they rebuild their relationship by raising a flock of geese together and learning to fly with them. Besides being the inspiration for the project, Lishman also provided technical assistance. “We couldn’t have made the movie without him,” Ballard says. “Bill worked like crazy on the set. He flew all the stunts, he made an extra airplane, plus he had so much knowledge about the geese.”

Lishman is now applying that knowledge to sandhill cranes as a step towards achieving his ultimate goal of flying with whooping cranes. In 1995, he managed to raise three sandhills from chicks to adulthood, and spent about 50 hours leading them on short flights around southern Ontario. Next summer, he intends to train a new and larger flock. “In some ways, sandhill cranes are easier to work with than geese,” says Lishman. “They can fly farther and at an earlier age. But we still have a lot to learn about them.”

It may be years, however, before anyone flies with whooping cranes, the elegant white birds that stand close to five feet tall. There are only an estimated 310 whoopers left in existence, and only one migrating flock of about 155 birds, which nest in remote northeastern Alberta wetlands. Canadian and U.S. government biologists, who are working to save the species, hope that by teaching some young whoopers to fly behind ultralights they can establish a second migrating flock as a kind of insurance policy—protecting the species from being wiped out altogether by disease or environmental disaster.

But first, the scientists must establish a potential migratory route with new summer breeding grounds in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, and a winter refuge, possibly in Louisiana. They must also determine whether the whoopers, which are much more temperamental than sandhills, can be taught to follow an aircraft. “It looks like the only viable technique we have for establishing a new migratory flock,” says Brian Johns, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Saskatoon. “There’s a lot of excitement, but there’s also apprehension because it’s not as easy as it looks.”

Lishman well knows that. But he didn’t become Father Goose without believing that he could tame his wildest ideas—an ability he attributes to his artistic temperament. “This experiment would never have happened if left to a government agency,” he says. “It takes artists to be the point of the drill bit.” Or, in this case, to presume to teach birds to be frequent flyers.