The New Flight of the Ibis – Issue 101: In Our Nature

In 2007, on a fine summer day in rural Austria, a flock of northern bald ibises followed two paraplanes, gondolas with prop engines, held aloft by yellow and blue parachutes. Although the ibises looked like vultures on the ground, the resemblance disappeared in the air. In flight their long, curved bills jutted forward, their black wings shimmered purple and green.

The scientist piloting one of the paraplanes was leading the ibises to a mountain pass in the Alps and a wintering ground in Tuscany. For centuries, ibises had been plentiful in Europe. They summered north of the Alps in today’s Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, where they nested on cliffs and castle walls and fed from meadows. By the early 1600s, the sociable animals, vulnerable to hunting, had been wiped off the continent. If this group of 20 learned the route to Tuscany and returned on its own, it would be the first colony of northern bald ibises to migrate in Europe in 400 years.

But the birds were not sticking to the script of their historic mission. After shadowing the paraplanes for about five miles, they turned around and flew back to where they started that day. The birds landed in a…
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