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Fly away

July 1, 1993

Fly away

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

The eighth annual community Earth Day celebration at Giovanni’s Restaurant featured Joseph Duff. Mr. Duff is co-founder, CEO and lead pilot with Operation Migration, Inc. Founded in 1994 with partner Bill Lishman, the Operation Migration team has conducted 10 migration studies leading three species of birds to their migration destination. They and those who work with them are on the forefront of innovation in efforts to save what was. Their work involves getting young birds of a specific species to follow people dressed up like that species flying ultralight airplanes in a series of flights that ultimately leads the real birds to a worthy migration destination. If it doesn’t sound simple, it’s because it isn’t.

The pilots, though not in a full-time capacity, actually help out in raising the bird travelers-to-be. While helping with raising the birds, they are required to wear costumes resembling adult versions of the young birds. At this time, the flight crew is approaching the halfway point of it current project of helping the federally endangered whooping crane establish a 100-bird-strong eastern migratory flock. Operation Migration’s highest-profile bird is the whooping crane, but the organization’s first claim to fame involved Canada geese. Their achievement of getting young Canada geese to follow an ultralight plane a great distance from a summer home to a winter migration location caught the attention of Hollywood. Thus came the movie Fly Away Home, starring Jeff Daniels, who was actually played by Joe Duff in all the actual flying scenes. The two look nothing alike, but Joe the “actor” pilot was in a pilot suit resembling a goose complete with goggles so you couldn’t tell who the heck was flying. The director wanted something on the pilot to look like Daniels, so Joe wore a blond ponytail.

I had seen Joe fly the ultralight plane at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, the home base of the eastern migration whooping crane project, but when I got to meet him formally at Giovanni’s I told him of my involvement with accessibility issues at the crane observation blind at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Then I asked him if he was from Canada. “Why? Do I have an accent?” he asked. “Yes, you do,” I replied. “It’s kind of a Scottish thing. You sound like every Canadian police officer I’ve ever heard in the movies.”

Then we spent the next three minutes lamenting how we both missed Jennifer Rabuck, a Necedah National Wildlife Refuge employee deeply involved with the crane project. Jennifer left the refuge to take a job fighting wildfires. “Jennifer could chop wood and run faster than her husband,” said Joe.

During the program, Joe told many stories about his two years of helping bring young whooping cranes to the Florida migration destination. My favorite was when he received a phone call from the Secret Service while in ultralight flight over Georgia. The Secret Service told Joe that people of some importance would be at their overnight location. When the migration crew arrived, a man and his wife were waiting for them amongst a small group of men in black. The man and his wife were ex-President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. A slide showed the happy couple wearing camouflaged jackets and binoculars. Jimmy was smiling as if he’d just seen a perfect clone of a 43-year-old JFK. JC’s into the environment, and he likes cats. I remember a quote of Jimmy’s when he was running for president in ’76. “I thought we should bring the cats in after I heard that hooty owl in the woods.”

The Carters wanted to know all about the whoopers, according to Joe, and Jimmy, having done all that building for Habitat for Humanity, actually helped build the overnight cage for the cranes. Joe proved it by showing a slide of JC pounding away with a hammer on a camouflaged structure.

The Carters wanted the crew to fly over Plains, Ga., but I can’t remember if they flew over with or without the birds because I was kind of under the influence of the hors d’oeuvres—I and this year’s Miss Very Environmentally Friendly, who was sitting two tables over. Subsequently, when one of the crew flew over Plains, he thought he’d photograph Jimmy Carter’s house, so he photographed 10 pictures of the biggest house he could see. His thinking was that Jimmy had to live in a mansion. To the pilot’s surprise, though, the big place he had photographed was the town nursing home. Jimmy lives in a very modest house for an ex-president.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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