The captive-bred northern bald ibises at Austria’s Konrad Lorenz Research Station hadn’t left the facility for generations. So biologists were stunned when the flock tried to migrate in August 1997, abruptly taking flight and scattering in a frenzied movement. The scientists had never imagined that their birds, extinct in the wild in Europe for more than 300 years, retained the instinct.
Inspired by the birds’ behavior— and the movie Fly Away Home, in which a duo leads orphaned Canada geese south by air—Johannes Fritz began plotting a bold reintroduction plan. Fritz, then a grad student at the research station, swallowed his motion sickness, earned a pilot’s license, bought an ultralight plane, and began guiding the hitherto captive birds from their ancestral Austrian breeding grounds to Italian overwintering sites.
Today, after a decade of trial and error, Fritz and his colleagues have a flock of 20 migratory ibises. Fueled by a new $5.9 million grant from the European Union, they’re aiming to boost the population to a self-sustaining 120 birds across three colonies by 2019.
They’ve got a shot—if they can stop hunters from picking off the birds in Northern Italy. Fifty of the 95 ibises Fritz’s team has guided over the years have been killed for sport in the region. “We are seeing losses of up to 60 percent of the species in the autumn migration,” Fritz says.
In areas where ibises are being targeted, Fritz's team follows them by car, capturing the birds and moving them to safer spots when necessary. They're also reaching out to local hunting groups to raise awareness about their work and about the costly consequences of killing the critically endangered ibis; hunters who shot two of them in 2012 face up to $22,000 in fines.
Fritz is betting these charismatic birds can win over an international fan base. Beginning in March the ibises will have their own app and Facebook pages, so fans can follow them on their journey. Global attention could be the difference in making the skies safer, says Fritz. Now, after being grounded for centuries, the northern bald ibis may finally be cleared for takeoff.
This story originally ran in the March-April 2014 issue as "Resurrection Bird."