As a child, Bill had always dreamed of flying with the birds. In his teenage years he was denied the opportunity of learning to fly in air cadets because of his colour blindness. Disappointed, and not particularly interested in military life, Bill quit the cadets to become an artist.
The dream would not die, however and Bill began his early experiments in hang-glider flight in the 1970’s. In 1985 Bill viewed the Genie award winning Imax film Skyward. This film featured close-up footage of Canada geese in flight that had never been seen before. Intrigued, Bill tracked down the well known Canadian naturalist and film maker, William Carrick and discovered that the geese from Skyward had been Imprinted on William and a boat. Imprinting is a phenomenon that was discovered by Nobel Prize winning Scientist Konrad Lorenz in the 1950’s.
Lorenz observed that the first thing a gosling sees within 24 hours of hatching, it becomes attached to, and it believes that object is it’s parent. This serves an obvious function in nature and explains why we see rows of geese and water fowl following behind the adult bird. Carrick had simply tricked the newly hatched Goslings into believing that he was their mother and they followed him everywhere. To shoot the movie they mounted the huge Imax camera in a boat and filmed the birds flying along behind.
Lishman became very excited at the idea of imprinting the birds on himself and his homebuilt ultralight, the Easy Riser. If the birds would follow Carrick in the boat, then surely they would follow him in the air. In 1986 Bill brought home a collection of eggs from Carrick’s sanctuary and proceeded to become the tiny goslings’ father.
The following was written by Bill’s son Aaron
“The first year we raised the birds, we really didn’t know what we were doing. The tiny goslings became attached to dad and I and would be taken on walks twice daily around the 100 acre Property on Purple hill. We dug a pond for them and built an outdoor pen with a shelter to keep them safe from predators. The Geese imprinted easily on us, as expected, and would follow us everywhere. The Riser was another story. The birds were afraid of the loud engine and could not be convinced to follow. They did not fear the quieter Honda dirt bike, and as they learned to fly they would do short flights up and down the runway behind the bike.
The first year’s experiment was a failure, so it was back to the drawing board. In 1987 we started with a new batch of goslings, and played the engine sound to them from the moment they hatched. Bill had purchased a used Laziar ultralight in hopes that it would be a better surrogate parent for the birds. Unfamiliar with the controls and peculiar ground handling characteristics of the twin engine Laziar, He broke his foot while trying to stop, and was laid up for the rest of the summer. Another year of no success.
It was not until 1989 that the project literally took off. We worked hard all summer wrangling the geese and spending as much time with them as possible. Using an uncovered Easy Riser frame, we chased, cajoled and coerced the little goslings into following the skeletal plane up and down the grass airstrip. Bill had purchased some high quality video cameras and there was always someone behind the camera during these escapades. The birds started flying short hops in late June, but the real riser was not ready!
The geese were flying longer and longer hops. Some even made circuits above the runway, but no one knew if they would follow the small plane into the air. Finally, in early July we had the Easy Riser rebuilt and ready for flight. But the weather had been poor for a couple of days and the birds had been confined to their pen. It was a tense moment when they were released that morning – we all had our fingers crossed that our hard work would not be in vain. The geese took off behind the Riser, and though it was not apparent at first, they were trying to catch up! Dad had to throttle back and fly at the verge of stall, as the new flyers strained behind him. We had made history, Dad was the first man to actually fly with the birds!”.
This story is covered in much more detail in the book Father Goose, Adventures of a Wildlife Hero, and in the video C’mon Geese.
After the initial success we raised another flock to see if we could duplicate our success. The techniques learned over the 3 years of experimentation paid off and we were once again successful teaching the birds to fly behind the aircraft.
One winter evening I remember being awakened in the middle of the night by dad. He had had a vision about migrating with the birds! This was going to be an incredible visual experience, flying with the birds over southern Ontario and the United States for several days, filming the whole while. If the migration experiment were successful the technique could be used to teach other birds who had lost their migration routes. We thought he was nuts! I went back to bed shaking my head and hoping this crazy idea would pass.
His vision did not falter and soon we had 27 little fuzzy goslings in our care. Bill had been joined in this year’s experiment by long time friend Joe Duff. Joe was a well known photographer in Toronto and a fellow ultralight pilot and enthusiast. Joe and Bill formed Operation Migration, a non profit organization dedicated to re-introducing endangered bird species to their native habitat. Their first migration project took place in 1993 and is well documented in the Ultra-Geese video. Fraught with problems there were several points when it looked like the project would be a total disaster.
The ultralight led migration from Purple Hill to Airlie Virginia was a total success, and most of the banded geese returned to nest in Ontario, close to where they started. ABC’s information program 20/20 covered the migration, and anchor Barbara Walters commented that “this is the most beautiful story we have shown in our 20 year history”. The show was broadcast on thanksgiving to fantastic reviews. Columbia Pictures liked the story and based the movie FLY AWAY HOME around Bill’s adventures.
Since this first successful migration Joe and Bill have worked closely with the American and Canadian governments to continue their migration experiments. Granted Charitable status, and assisted by many unpaid volunteers, Operation Migration has continued it’s research with ultralight led migrations and the re-introduction of endangered species. For an update on their current projects please visit their website.