This story first appeared on the Guardian website.
In the end he didn't have to wear a beak. But Vladimir Putin did don white overalls and big black goggles as he took to the skies over northern Siberia in a motorized hang glider to help endangered cranes begin their migration to wintering grounds in Iran and India.
Unfortunately, no one had told the young birds, who only formed up behind Russia's stunt-loving head of state on his second time in the air. On his first flight Putin was accompanied by only one of the Siberian white cranes.
Putin blamed strong winds for the initial failure of the birds to fly with him. But he described the cranes as "pretty lads" when journalists asked what he thought of them after landing.
The motorized hang glider—in which he was accompanied by the seasoned pilot Igor Nikitin—proved a handful. Putin said it was harder to control than a jet fighter.
Putin, who is a few days short of his 60th birthday, has spent about a year and a half preparing for the trip with the cranes and received 17 hours of advance training on the motorized hang glider.
Wednesday's flight took place in Russia's far north, by the banks of the Siberian river Ob, at the site of a project that rears cranes in their traditional nesting grounds. The birds have almost been driven to extinction by hunters targeting them along their migration routes through central Asia.
After his flight Putin donated the hang glider, which his press spokesman said he had purchased with his own money, to the crane conservation project and shared fish soup and tea prepared over a campfire with the scientists working there, the state-owned paper Rossisskaya Gazeta reported.
Putin followed his close encounter with birds with a close encounter with sea life. On his arrival on Thursday at the Asia Pacific Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which Russia is hosting, he visited a new aquarium in the city. Staff pulled an octopus out of its tank, which Putin proceeded to stroke, Interfax reported.
The cranes will now remain under the supervision of the presidential administration, which already cultivates Putin's nature-loving credentials by assisting schemes dedicated to preserving polar bears, tigers, leopards, and whales in Russia.
Shortly after the news of Putin's successful flight was reported by state media, the Kremlin-controlled English language television channel Russia Today broadcast the president's first interview since winning his third term in March.
Asked about the rock band Pussy Riot, Putin declined to comment on the severity of the two-year sentence handed down to Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich for their "punk prayer" protest in Moscow's main cathedral, but chose to focus on the "moral" aspect of the case.
In particular, he reminded viewers of the orgy performed by members of the radical art group Voina in Moscow's Biological Museum in 2008 to protest against the election of Dmitry Medvedev, who replaced Putin in the Kremlin for four years, in which Tolokonnikova took part.
"Group sex is better than one-on-one because, as in any sort of collective work, you can shirk off," Putin said.