Joe Duff

Born in 1949 in rural Ontario, Joseph Duff developed an early appreciation for nature and a love of flying, earning his pilot’s license while working in the Yukon Territories. Duff was one of Canada’s leading commercial photographers, known primarily for his work with the world’s major automobile manufacturers. After twenty years of operating a studio in downtown Toronto, he began to look for new adventures.

Joe joined Bill Lishman in 1993 and helped him conduct the first human-led bird migration. The two “artists turned naturalists” used two ultralight aircraft to lead 18 Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. The success of this initial study led to the founding of Operation Migration the following year, and the making of “Fly Away Home” in 1995. For the film, Duff trained the “actor geese” to follow the aircraft, and worked closely with the production crew; even contributing some of the footage. In the same year Joe led Sandhill cranes in flights around southern Ontario, as well as leading 60 geese to South Carolina with Lishman and the OM crew.

Once the 1997 Sandhill crane migration was completed, Duff assisted Dr. William Sladen and Gavin Shire in the first ultralight-led migration of Trumpeter swans, which was carried out by Warrenton, Virginia’s Airlie Environmental Studies Centre.

To address the problem of tameness in birds conditioned to follow aircraft, Duff worked with the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to establish the innovative costume-rearing protocol used in a 1998 study. He developed the protocol for the preliminary Sandhill-crane study and for the current Whooping crane reintroduction project.

Joe heads the team of pilots that annually lead a new generation of Whooping cranes on their1200+ mile migration from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to the St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges in Florida.

In early 2006 Duff led a team of pilots on an aerial survey conducted Arkansas and Louisiana in search of the elusive Ivory-billed woodpecker.

His personal aircraft went permanent display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 2008. In 2012 a second of Operation Migration’s retired aircraft went on display at Conservation Station at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park in Florida.

Joe has developed a keen interest in the science of migration and crane behavior, and has accumulated more hours in flight alongside more species of birds than any other human.

Joe and his wife Diana have one daughter, Alex. The family lives in the small town of Port Perry, Ontario, the home of Operation Migration’s headquarters.

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