The wonderful adventures of youth
Christian Moullec grew up surrounded by nature. His formative years were spent in western France, in Brittany, by the sea and in “a beautiful place” where he would roam the countryside, sometimes accompanied by equally inquisitive friends and sometimes with his parents, watching the abundance of wildlife that lived alongside them.
Recalling fields and lanes filled with flocks of birds, Moullec has clear memories of his path to learning about them all.
“I discovered nature through weekend walks with my parents and some childhood playmates who were peasants. There were still many species of birds to be found in Breton hedges 50 years ago, and with my father, we would uncover the nests of all these species (without disturbing them, of course). So, very early on, my passion for nature and birds was born.”
His past is shared by many of us, those fortunate to grow up in a world that had not yet advanced to crisis point; long hazy summers with the breeding season in full swing, kingfishers bombarding passers-by along the riverbanks to protect their nests, clouds of lapwings, larks and buntings rising up from the wheat and corn stubble as the year progressed, and perhaps the arrival of waders and shorebirds en masse as the days shortened and winter crept in.
This idyllic upbringing also played its part in helping Moullec understand the direction he wanted his life to go. Enchanted by nature and the raw elements of the world, Moullec decided on a career in meteorology, with the foresight to understand this could open up the world to him even more.
“I chose this profession because I knew it would allow me to travel to the many French overseas departments and territories, and journey across the globe to document the rich biodiversity of all the seabird species that inhabit the French Islands.
I wanted to see the albatrosses of the Southern Islands and Kerguelens [also known as the Desolation Islands, a group of sub-Antarctic islands]. It is almost impossible to go there as a tourist, so I decided to discover them and their bird populations as a meteorologist. I spent a full year living with only 30 people on Île Nouvelle-Amsterdam in 1988, carrying out meteorology investigations and banding and studying the albatrosses.”
This drive to be with the birds, not just reading about or studying them but right there in among them, was embedded in him by external influences as well as his innate understanding of the beauty of his childhood surroundings.
The Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz’s ground-breaking work on imprinting, the process by which birds and other animals – including us – view the first individual they see as an object of trust and someone or something to follow throughout the early part of their lives, was a major influence on Moullec. Lorenz had been captivated by animals from a young age when he witnessed a salamander give birth, but it was the beloved story by Swedish author Selma Lagerlof of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson, the boy who became small enough to fly on a goose’s back, that had the most influence on him.
Unable to actually become a wild goose himself nor fly on the back of one, he asked his parents to at least own one. The ducks that they eventually agreed to came close enough, and he was overjoyed to discover the connection that he and a one-day old duckling instantly made. He became an expert on water fowl behavior as the years passed, developing his now lauded theories on imprinting.
Dreaming of flight
Reading Lorenz’s books from the age of eight and watching as many documentaries he could find about the great man, Moullec understood the effect the ripples that span out from childhood can have on the future of a life. Lorenz’s inherited “green thumb” for rearing animals was something Moullec could do too.
This work and that of many other people gave him the inspiration to follow his dreams, as birds became more and more dominant in his life.
Moullec also had the fortune to encounter Lambart Von Essen, an old Swedish man when Moullec met him; a friend of Konrad Lorenz, he worked on the reintroduction of lesser white fronted geese to Sweden. These influences gradually turned Moullec’s life away from the science of weather, and towards the wellbeing of one of the world’s most enigmatic birds, the geese family. Memories from his boyhood helped center his epiphany.
“I am passionate about all bird species, but when wild geese would fly over my childhood home, it was the stuff of dreams. I wanted to go with them, because I understood even then, that nothing good could come of our society. I did not like the French school system, nor the capitalist society that I found lacking in spirituality, I wanted to escape, and be with the geese.
It was the emotional bond Lorenz had with his geese, and these birds’ incredible intelligence, their magnificent and powerful flight, their long migration journeys, their humanity too, almost, that intrigued me and changed my life.”
Fully turning his attention now to geese, his meteorology career a distant memory itself, Moullec conceived of the plan that would start the rest of his life, through what many first perceived as perhaps the beginnings of a mental breakdown. If, like Lorenz, he also could not become a goose, he could at least fly with them. Again, childhood dreams became adult realities.
“When I was a child, my twin brother Bernard and I built ourselves wings, although they didn't fly very well. But at the age of 20, my brother became a hang-gliding champion and would sometimes take me flying over the Breton hills. It made perfect sense to me that I needed to train as a pilot also.”
Saving the Scandinavians
By this point, Moullec and his wife had already been keeping orphaned geese on their land at their home in France, raising them, calling and “honking” at them to follow wherever they went. Moullec knew that these geese should one day migrate, but with no parents to show them the way, he understood the responsibility he now bore, and he was all too eager to meet it.
Teaching himself at first how to hang-glide and then to fly a microlight, Moullec hatched a plan to take orphaned dwarf geese on their first migration route. His plan was met with ridicule and skepticism from the start.
“My idea of flying in a microlight with the geese to reintroduce them into nature with a new migration path was too new-fangled for certain scientists; my friends and relatives were also worried about my safety and mental health. Some scientists at the Paris Museum strongly opposed this new idea that had not been approved by any expert committees.
My neighbors who were farmers also thought that my wife and I were crazy, but warmed up to us after we explained that the young geese that they saw walking with us in the countryside would later accompany me as I flew across northern Europe.”
True to his word and ideals, and having already performed a “local” flight with some lesser-white fronted geese across France in 1995, in 1999, the first migration flight happened.
“I learned about these wild dwarf geese in Scandinavia in a nature conservation magazine, and that their species was having problems, that they needed protection. I had not known anything about this species before reading this article.
To get these geese to trust us (my wife and I), we had to acquire eggs from breeders in Belgium, which we then placed in an incubator, and as soon as the goslings were born, we did not leave their side: we were their surrogate, adoptive parents. Geese are migratory birds, but they do not have a migratory instinct, this process is a learned behavior, not an innate one.
First, they must follow their parents in flight to discover the traditional migration paths of the species. I knew of this peculiarity, so I figured if these very young birds considered me their parent, they would follow me in flight and I could guide them to areas where they would be safe.
The Scandinavian dwarf geese had almost disappeared because their wintering grounds in the countries of south-eastern Europe were being targeted, they were being systematically exterminated by hunters. I can't educate people, but I know the geese can! So, I had to guide new generations of dwarf geese to well-protected spots located in southwestern Germany.
We chose this new site after deliberating with German biologists. The place we chose is a superb nature reserve on the banks of the Rhine where many other species of wild geese already winter. Geese are sociable birds and will mix with other species very well”.
Birdman takes off
In the ensuing press attention, first in France and then abroad, Moullec became known as “the Birdman”. This selfless, seemingly reckless but ultimately wonderful act of love and dedication to protect migratory birds captured the hearts and minds of people across the world, and his story has appeared in many articles, TV News clips and eventually, films, and books.
In the English language film ‘The Secret Routes of Migratory Birds’ by Franck Cuvelier, there is a stressful scene when two particularly inquisitive members of the group of geese have wandered into hunter territory on the Loire, lured there by fixed-line decoy ducks. The scene doesn't end in tragedy that time, but over the years there have been upsetting situations.
“Of course, I have experienced my fair share of extraordinary and distressing situations. But in this film, there were also scenes that, although actually occurring in the lives of geese, had to be staged for the movie: cinema is not always easy.
Once, though, when I was flying, not too high, with a large group of birds, a hunter almost shot at them, but at the last moment did not out of fear of hitting me, as I was in the very middle of the group. But my work with birds is important because beyond it being useful for a species to be reintroduced, I give birds a platform so they can explain to the world why they are disappearing and that we need to protect them.
The beauty of the shots I take while we are in the air, helps me soften hearts and souls and, thus, reach into people's thoughts and brains, perhaps inspiring them to also take action to ensure the protection of all biodiversity. I also discovered that, often, the young birds that are the most difficult to train to fly with me, end up being my best pupils. So, I never get discouraged, no matter how stressful things can get”.
The logistics of such a remarkable journey are mind-boggling; Moullec needs to stay with his charges all of the way, beginning to end, otherwise what is the point? This throws up so many issues, not least about how he stays sustained and awake, but also the sheer force of the elements.
This is not like driving some birds down the motorway with opportunities for pit stops, cafes, and shelter available every few miles. Needless to say, the planning is almost more important than the execution. His wife and many friends have provided ground support over the years, and it helps to maintain a magnanimous attitude towards some aspects, as well as a healthy and eyes-wide-open understanding of the reasons for all this hard work in the first place. Conservation is borne out of necessity, because of a human world that stopped paying attention to the natural world a long time ago. Moullec explains:
“It is indeed imperative to always stay with the birds, actually until mid-winter so that their full return to nature can be performed gradually. Therefore, ground logistics and volunteer friends are very important. Yes, bureaucracy and the weather sometimes cause problems; but we don't force things, sometimes we often have to be quite philosophical about it.
It takes time and a lot of hard work to come up with the financial means for this kind of a venture when you are more a group of contemplative dreamers. But the thing to remember is that our work is just a drop in the ocean, and we only do this because we have to, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The tragedy would be that our societies collapsing would end up being what saves the planet.
The solution would be having media that tell the truth and are no longer funded by multinational corporations. The Internet must be uncensored. There must be no more policing of thought by multinational corporations and their paid politicians. People have to stop watching television and start watching life, nature, and their neighbors.
Eating less meat is an important step towards solving the problem, because it takes 15 plant proteins to make a single animal protein that is no more nutritious. If we halve our meat consumption, we release 7.5 planets in terms of agricultural area…”
Everything Moullec says and does is underpinned with this philosophy, this deep grasp of what drives us a species and what brings about the downfall of so many innocents. His work would be meaningless if no one were to learn anything from it, so in 2006, he decided to open his wings to everyone else.
You can fly too!
Since that very first flight back in 1995, Moullec has now flown with other species of geese, as well as cranes and swans, and he invites you to do the same. Using a custom-fitted microlight where he sits at the back and passengers sit at the very front of the machine to provide the best view and even opportunity to reach out and touch the birds, Moullec has been taking paying customers up into the air since 2008 for flights with the birds that live on his farm.
“Currently we have about 150 birds on our small secluded farm. We try to recreate small-scale natural environments with the help of bodies of water and puddles in the hopes of enriching the biodiversity around our house with every passing year.
People sometimes bring us injured birds, too. The number of wildlife species in need of assistance is constantly increasing because the model of our society does not show signs of change, and the media do not tell the truth.
[To help spread the message we do with the migrations], I had an idea in 2006: many people had asked me to accompany me and my birds on one of our flights so they could discover what it was like, so in 2008 we started our first passenger flights.
I was never worried that my birds would be afraid of these strangers because the birds always follow me when I am aboard my microlight, no matter who my passengers are. I have encountered people who were not entirely thrilled that I was flying with endangered bird species, or people who do not particularly like birds (people who had received this flight as a gift for example, hunters, too). But during the flight itself, something magical happens.
Almost always, people are won over by the experience, the magic, the spirituality of these little slices of eternity. Time seems to stop for the 35 minutes that you are soaring through the skies with these heavenly princelings. Some hunters have even confessed that it led them to quit hunting.
Very few people are not moved by it; but it does happen from time to time, and I think these are people who have lost their sense of wonder. Curiously, too, children are not always the best audience. But, listen, I'm not trying to convince people. The magic has to happen for you.”
Oceans of change
Whilst Moullec no longer takes birds on their first migrations, his friends and family are working on several projects that are in urgent need of funding. In thirty years, Europe has lost a third of its wild bird population. Safe migration routes are becoming increasingly rarer, and migration is becoming very complicated for many species with key stopover and final destination habitats disappearing, threats from hunting, distracting lights from towns and cities at night causing birds to lose their way and become exhausted, pollution, global warming, and the ever more obvious disappearance of insects because of pesticides. Moullec has this to say about the state of the world and how we got there:
“The productivist model of agriculture that has been put in place to reduce farmers’ production costs is subjected to unfair competition by the free trade treaties, in turn put in place by politicians who have been corrupted by the multinational agribusinesses.
This is the main reason for the disappearance of all biodiversity throughout the world. 60% of the world's species have disappeared in the last 50 years! The simple and urgent solution to this problem is the end of globalism, a return to the strength of nation states and a sovereign people, dependent on local and organic food. It is the multinational firms that kill all life on Earth for the benefit of only a few very wealthy families.
This is the discourse that is hidden by mainstream media. The capitalist world organizes our life to cut us off from our need for spirituality so that we may think that we can overcome this by consuming useless material goods. Man must focus on fundamental values: the family, nature, democracy, faith in God. All these values are the opposite of what drives the world’s wealthiest families to become even wealthier and who would like to impose a hegemonic rule over a unipolar world and surround themselves by an army of slaves deprived of any identity.
60% of the world's species have disappeared in the last 50 years!
We are the many, we must open our eyes if we hope to save the planet and its wonderful birds. We must nurture and develop our ability to recognize beauty so we can save our unique and wonderful planet."
This frank and unapologetic attitude may not sit well with some, but those same people may find themselves hard-pressed to successfully challenge it.
The fact of the way things stand at the moment is that, while no one wants them to be necessary, the world would be a much darker and empty place without people like Moullec, and like Konrad Lorenz; also like Jean Dorst, the former director of the Natural History Museum in Paris; Alain Bougrain-Dubourg, President of the LPO, the French League for the Protection of Birds; biologist Kirk Goolsby who worked with the Canada geese on the film Flying Away Home; all of these people and more whom Moullec counts among his many influences, as well of course as that of his wife.
At 58 years old, Moullec still has many flights with the geese to go, but it is comforting to know that his legacy will live on; a friend who has been working for him for seven years is also being trained up in the ways of living and loving the geese, other birds and the world at large, a person who at the age of 25 has, we hope, many years ahead to make more difference.
No matter how small a drop in the ocean Moullec perceives his efforts to be, an ocean is nothing without all of those millions of drops; we hope the migrating geese are able to look down on those vast bodies of water as they fly overhead and know that somewhere, somebody is fighting for them.