Russian President Vladimir Putin's bid to encourage endangered cranes on their winter migration appeared to have failed spectacularly Wednesday when it emerged the birds had been taken back to a wildlife reserve by plane.
The 60-year-old president had already earned mockery when he slipped on a space suit and lodged himself in a motorised hang-glider to guide half a dozen Siberian Cranes -- all hatched in captivity -- over Russia's frozen north.
Yet the news grew even worse for Putin when the environmental oversight agency revealed that the birds he tried to lead in September to northwestern Siberia's Yamal region had failed to fly any further south.
They were put instead like regular passengers on an airplane and flown back home to the sanctuary in the Ryazan region of central Russia.
"The Siberian Cranes took a flight back with the ornithologists last night," Interfax quoted an unnamed source at the Federal Service for Natural Resources Oversight (Rosprirodnadzor) as saying.
The bird stunt seemed extreme to many who have already seen the strongman burnish his macho image by hunting whales and discovering ancient urns while scuba diving -- performances that Putin last month admitted were staged.
Putin explained that flying with the birds was one of his dreams and called the cranes "peaceful" and noble in their mission.
But the flock of six Siberian Cranes that he had guided failed to follow a larger flock of less endangered Common Cranes further south on their migration path once the first winter snows started to fall.
"The first snow appeared last week and the Common Cranes... immediately took off," the Rosprirodnadzor official said.
The source blamed the Siberian Cranes' refusal to follow what should have been their natural instincts on a lack of sufficient acclimatisation time rather than any fault of Putin himself.
"They came a little too late," said the Russian official.
The highly-symbolic image of Putin leading a flock of majestic creatures was broadcast widely across state television and appeared meant to counter signs that he was losing some of his unchallenged authority and popularity.
Putin later underlined the political ramifications of his flight by dropping a joke about not everyone in Russia's splintered opposition movement being ready to follow a natural leader.
"Only the weak cranes refused to fly," he said a few days after his original September visit to the skies.
Some Internet bloggers had noted at the time that footage appeared to show a few of the birds pulling out of Putin's formation during last month's flight in what could be read as insubordination.
Putin's sensitivity about the stunt was underscored still further Wednesday when his official spokesman took just minutes to responded to the bad news about the non-migrating birds.
"We saw the sad reports saying that the Siberian Cranes failed to fly south," official spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
"But we can state with confidence that this programme will be continued," he added in reference to future attempts to guide birds to new nesting locations with the help of gliders and other small craft.