“Operation Migration” founder still flying to save endangered birds; whooping cranes not Canada geese.

by Cortney Cook

One of these birds is not like the other.

Joseph Duff is one of the leading pioneers in resolving issues surrounding bird migration- specifically for cranes and Canadian geese. He is also one of the men behind the big bird costume (not to be associated with Sesame Street’s Big Bird).

Few would guess that Duff used to be one of Canada’s leading commercial photographers; he used to take photos for automobile industries such as BMW.

“I think I went through a change of life, something happened to me,” Duff said in an interview in March at Centennial College. “Back when I was a photographer I drove a BMW and wore a tuxedo. Now I drive a pickup truck, and I have a good collection of hip-waders. I think I just got bored of photography.”

Duff then adopted a more natural field. He began working with sculptor Bill Lishman and together they led the first human-led migration with their ultra-light aircrafts. They led 18 Canadian geese all the way to Virginia. Their work and Lishman’s personal story inspired the 1996 Hollywood movie Fly Away Home, starring Jeff Daniels.

“It’s based on Bill in general, and he is a sculptor,” Duff said, adding that the film took liberties with the truth. “I mean, his wife didn’t die, and his daughter didn’t fly, but his real daughter is actually a biologist now. She was only seven or eight back then”

Together, Duff and Lishman founded Open Migration, a non-profit organization that resolves the migration problems for birds.

Duff explains the tedious process of raising and training cranes so they can be wild, migratory birds. The technique that Duff uses is a simple as dressing up in a costume.

“The idea is to disguise the human form, not to look like a bird, but we just want to make sure when they [cranes] encounter their first normally dressed person they’ll be afraid,” Duff said.

When Duff and interns from Open Migration work with the cranes, they carry a little vocalizer, and they have a puppet to interact with all the birds. According to Duff, whooping cranes have 50-60 different displays, calls and postures.

“It’s kind of like being in high school, you want to save face. You don’t want to get involved in fight but you also don’t want to back down. It’s really primal,” he said.

Duff specifies a characteristic called the “stick-toss”, where it shows the other bird that they’re “so insignificant that playing with this stick is more interesting.”

A job such as Duff’s involves long hours and many months away from home. He says it can be frustrating at times, as he may only see his family a few times a year. To earn some extra “brownie points”, he occasionally takes his daughter flying with him.

But it seems like Duff will be doing his job for a while.

“When you’re flying, you’re flying beside this incredible bird, 4,000ft in the air on a perfect morning. It’s incredibly inspiring, you just can’t top that visual.”