Geese's movie careers take flight Scientist: Dr. William J. L. Sladen is director of environmental studies at the Airlie Sanctuary in Virginia, home to several of the geese that star in the movie 'Fly Away Home.'

On the Bay

September 06, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE PHONE RANG. It was Igor, soon to be starring in movie theaters near you. And soon to be shot, down in the rolling Virginia countryside, if care is not taken.

"Aaauhn" Igor crooned into the phone. He seemed unconcerned, silly goose.

But Virginia's goose-hunting season opened Tuesday, making this "a terrible time" for Dr. William J. L. Sladen, director of environmental studies at the 3,000-acre Airlie Sanctuary, 60 miles from Washington.

Igor and several of his co-stars are permanent residents there, never having learned how to migrate. (Geese, like us, must be taught many behaviors as youngsters or they never get it.)

Sladen said negotiations with local hunters to watch out for Igor and his little band had gotten "good cooperation." But still, one worries -- the flock is imprinted from birth to cozy up to humans.

It is one of two groups of Canada geese raised especially for the new Columbia Films production, "Fly Away Home," whose human stars include Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin.

The movie is based on the exploits of Bill Lishman, a Canadian who in 1988 made ornithological and aviation history when he raised a flock of young geese to "imprint" on him and his ultralight plane (i.e. recognize them as "mother").

Lishman and his "children," on subsequent flights south from Ontario as far as the Carolinas, proved that waterfowl, once shown a given migration route, learned it and could begin following it on their own.

This was especially exciting to Sladen, an honored polar explorer, Johns Hopkins University professor emeritus and holder of degrees in medicine and zoology. His work with penguins brought to light the spread of DDT to parts of the globe as remote as Antarctica.

Sladen, who is also an international authority on swans, claims the world's largest free-swimming collection at Airlie, with eight species represented.

To him, swans are "ambassadors," great, spectacular creatures that can provide a marvelous entry point to capturing public support for preserving wetlands and other ecosystems -- such as the Chesapeake's aquatic vegetation -- on which waterfowl depend.

Sladen had long dreamed of re-establishing the historic migrations of trumpeter swans to the Chesapeake Bay.

Shot and trapped out of existence in these parts by the 1700s, trumpeters are even larger and more eloquent of voice than the great tundra swans that migrate each November into the bay country from Alaska and western Canada.

Healthy populations of trumpeters remain in Alaska, and Sladen has several reproducing trumpeters at Airlie.

In fact Sladen and Lishman first planned to use swans, not geese, in an experimental migration that they planned after meeting at a swan symposium in 1989.

Sladen sent eggs to Lishman in Ontario to hatch and imprint, but Lishman ran afoul of the Canadian Wildlife Service for lack of proper permits (yes, he needed permission to fly with the birds).

After years of frustration, they went with geese, which were abundant and less controversial than swans. And so you will see young Anna Paquin soaring with Canadas, not trumpeters.

Not with Igor, though.

Igor and his crew, used for the close-ups with the human stars, were dubbed "truck geese" because they were hauled to Airlie in a truck. Lishman trained the "ultra geese" to fly behind the ultralight for the cameras.

Lishman is turning his attention now toward teaching cranes to migrate, part of a federal project aimed at re-establishing the endangered whooping crane.

Meanwhile, Sladen pushes on with his dream of trumpeter swans reclaiming their historic franchise on the Chesapeake.

He is "optimistic," he says, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, once opposed to the idea, will look favorably upon it.

At Airlie, he has assembled a crack team under biologist Gavin Shire for his "Operation Migration." In the spring, an Airlie flock of geese, joined by Lishman's movie star "ultra geese," returned several hundred miles on their own from wintering grounds in the Carolinas -- a great success.

Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization, is helping raise funds for migratory experiments with swans. (To participate by "adopting" an egg or a bird, write Sladen at Environmental

Studies, Airlie Center, 6809 Airlie Road, Warrenton, Va., 20187.)

Sladen thinks he has a better idea for teaching young trumpeters the way "home" to the Chesapeake Bay. They are so huge that teaching them to fly close to a fragile ultralight might be risky.

He thinks they can be trucked most of the route they would learn. Every 40 miles or so, they would be released to fly about, enough to identify the landmarks for retracing the route on their own.

They could, he believes, be imprinted on a remote-controlled model plane, which would encourage them to fly at each stop to the heights needed to get their bearings.

This trucking and flying technique also is being studied by biologists trying to teach cranes to migrate.

Meanwhile, go see the goose movie. Sladen says, "It's wonderful; it will win prizes and make a star out of Igor," who plays the lovable runt, courtesy of a real-life malformed ankle.

Sladen says he is portrayed "by some minor actor whose name I can't recall. Really, they should have let me play the part."

In the interest of full disclosure, I was paid $10,000 by Crown Publishing in 1995 to revise and add to a book, "Father Goose," written by Bill Lishman. Its publication was roughly concurrent with release of the film. I have no financial stake in the success of the book or the movie.

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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