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obituary

'Father Goose' Bill Lishman loved to fly with the birds

Though his avian conservation efforts made him well known, his eclectic talents lent him to a myriad of descriptors

Bill Lishman stands by a replica of Stonehenge near Whitby, Ont., that he sculpted out of crushed cars.

As a boy growing up on a small dairy farm in Pickering, Ont., Bill Lishman would watch the great flocks of geese flying overhead with wonder.

"I'd look up at them so high and go, 'Wow, where did they come from? How do they see the world?'"

Decades later, in the early 1980s, he would finally see for himself. During an early morning flight in his ultralight aircraft (one of his many hobbies), Mr. Lishman found himself surrounded by a giant flock of ducks.

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"It was probably thousands of birds," he said in a video interview posted on his website. He was going at the same speed, at the same climbing rate as the ducks. He was flying so close that he could see every muscle in the bird's backs – every detail on every feather.

He was mesmerized. The experience, to him, was magical.

As soon as he landed, he ran back to his house, where he told his family: "I've got to repeat that experience."

Over the next several decades, he would "fly with the birds" over and over again.

Initially, he was just experimenting, filming short videos of himself flying, up-close, with the birds. But after he was contacted by scientists, including the British-born zoologist William Sladen, the experiments morphed into a three-year project to develop a technique to "teach" the birds migration routes, helping to pull some of the world's most endangered species back from the brink of extinction.

Over the course of three years, they trained Canada geese (and later whooping cranes – a species still classified as endangered) to believe that Mr. Lishman and the plane were their "parents," teaching the birds to fly behind him on safe routes. The story would later serve as the basis for the 1996 Hollywood movie Fly Away Home.

Bill Lishman flying with whooping cranes.

Mr. Lishman died at his home on Dec. 30, just 10 days after he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 78.

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To his family, it was ironic that Mr. Lishman would become best known for flying with the flock. This is because in everything else he did, daughter Carmen said, "he'd see the flock going one way, and he'd want to go the other."

As "Father Goose," Mr. Lishman was best known to the rest of the world for Operation Migration, the non-profit that formed out of the bird project. But his work was so varied that, when asked by strangers what he did for a living, his typical response was to ask: "Can you start with an easier question?"

His eclectic talents meant he could be described in any of the following ways: Artist (mainly metal sculptures, including a 13-metre high "iceberg" sculpture installed at the Canadian Museum of Nature in 2015), inventor (a rocking chair made of curved metal pipes), designer, filmmaker, public speaker and environmental activist. For his work, he has been honoured with the Governor-General's Meritorious Service Medal, and the prestigious Odyssey of the Mind Creativity Award.

William Lishman was born Feb. 12, 1939, at Women's College Hospital in Toronto, to Myra Cronk and Alan Lishman. The pair settled on a farm in what was then Pickering (now Ajax), and had three children: Alaine, Bill and Louise.

Growing up, Mr. Lishman often said, he learned more on the farm than at school. His mother had a master's degree in biology and would incorporate lessons into their daily chores. In traditional classrooms, he struggled. "He always said 'They just kept teaching me what I couldn't do,'" Carmen said.

He was kicked out in Grade 11 after a incident involving dynamite and finished the rest of high school by correspondence. But Mr. Lishman viewed his limited schooling as an advantage, often telling people he was "unencumbered by formal education." (Even so, he would later be given honorary degrees from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Niagara University in New York.)

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After high school, Mr. Lishman took up blacksmithing. A few years later, he decided to follow some friends on a lark on a trip to South America. During a stop in Mexico, he met 17-year-old Paula Vockeroth, who was there studying weaving.

According to her, Mr. Lishman had noticed the car outside her host's home with an Ontario plate on it, grew curious and decided to knock on the door. "He was always so curious," she said. They developed a friendship. And, in 1967, when Paula returned to Canada, the then-27-year-old Mr. Lishman came back with her.

They married, and settled initially in Pickering. ( Fly Away Home used a fair amount of artistic licence on Mr. Lishman's story – including killing off the wife character in the first scene.)

In reality, the Lishmans enjoyed more than 51 years together. And it was the success of her namesake fashion business – based on a "knit-fur" technique she developed – that allowed Mr. Lishman in those first few years the freedom to explore his many interests. The couple had three children: Aaron, 45, Geordie, 42, and Carmen, 34.

Bill Lishman walks out the front door of his home on Oct. 10, 2003.

In 1988, Mr. Lishman began working on the family's dream home – an underground structure built into the side of a hilltop near Port Perry, an area they nicknamed Purple Hill (for the lavender-coloured weeds that grew there). The structure was part-igloo and part-cave – rooms that were entirely circular, with no right angles.

"He didn't think that boxes were a very sensible way to live," Carmen said.

The house was complete with a pop-up refrigerator (it rose out of the counter at the touch of a button), and a swing in the living room.

It was at Purple Hill where Mr. Lishman developed his many projects – his art, his ideas and his designs. Recently, he had been working on a new concept for housing in Canada's North, and trying to get politicians to meet with him to show them his ideas.

Over the years, there were as many failures as successes. But he always kept on.

"If I'm not making something or creating something, I'm totally bored," he said in the website video. "That's what makes us go forwards in life. Wanting to make things new and better."

It was also around the area of Purple Hill that he loved to fly.

Up in the air, "he was a pretty wild man," his son Aaron said. "He loved to do wingovers – it would be nauseating. He would take people up for thrill rides and freak people out." And although there were crashes over the years – every member of the family can recall crashing at least once with him – never any injuries serious enough to consider quitting.

Bill Lishman stands in front of a plane on Aug. 1, 2008.

For Aaron, there was one crash in particular that stuck with him.

Back in 1996, the two of them were flying near Nestleton, not far from their home. They were practising touch-and-go landings when they crashed suddenly into the ground.

"The aircraft was a total disaster. It was in pieces," Aaron said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I wrecked your airplane. What are we gonna do?'"

Mr. Lishman, he said, just looked at him and smiled. "Well, let's get another one."

So they did. And then they took off again.

Mr. Lishman leaves his wife, Paula, their three children, Aaron, Geordie and Carmen, three grandchildren, and his sister, Louise.

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