Russian President Vladimir Putin's bid to encourage a group of 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 already earned mockery last month when he took to a motorised hanglider to guide a half dozen of the Siberian Cranes -- all hatched in captivity -- over Russia's frozen north.
Yet the news grew even worse for Putin when the Rosprirodnadzor environmental oversight agency revealed that the birds he had guided on the way to Siberia's far northern Yamal region failed to fly on further south.
They were put in an almost farcical twist like passengers on an airplane and flown back home to the sanctuary in the Ryazan region of central Russia where they had been raised.
"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 majestic creatures 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.