Watching the World’s Greatest Journey

In the middle of the nineteenth century, my great-grandparents set sail from England and Ireland, seeking a better life in Australia. They had no guarantees that they would ever arrive, let alone ever go back again.

Photo by Lim Kim Chye & Yian

Every year millions of birds make a journey that is even more dangerous and uncertain. They aren’t driven by despair or hope, as my ancestors probably were, but by instinct — and they have even less chance than my great grandparents had of making it safely. Some estimates say that fifty percent of migratory birds on their first round trip don’t get back again to the place where they are born.

Poverty made my ancestors take the risk; migratory birds don’t really have a choice. From the moment of birth they are programmed to take that journey repeatedly. So why has nature inserted a programme so inherently risky into their genes? It’s fairly obvious why they leave their birthplace — it gets too darn cold and food resources vanish. But why, once they are enjoying the balminess of tropical forests, do they go north again? It doesn’t get cold here, the food doesn’t suddenly disappear; why not stay, nest, and forget about that dangerous trip back?

The individual bird, of course, doesn’t have a choice. His instincts tell him to get going and he goes…but nature does things for a reason. In this case, the abundance of nutritious, high-protein food in the short summers of the north makes the journey worth the risk. If he stayed here, he would be in competition with the locals — who would be feeding hungry youngsters too.

The simple truth, then, is that for the species as a whole, the benefits outweigh the risks, and the kids profit. Probably my ancestors thought along the same lines, although in more personal terms. (Risk-taking worked for them, I’m happy to say!)

Over the next couple of weeks you are going to see me writing a lot on this subject – because our local Raptor Watch is coming around again, organised by the Malaysian Nature Society.

If you are in Malaysia, make a date to be in at Cape Rachado (Tanjung Tuan) on the 4th and/or 5th March down in Malacca (Melaka), just south of Port Dickson. Look this website for more info:

Or watch this space.


Watching the World’s Greatest Journey — 7 Comments

  1. Hello, Glenda. I’m wandering in from Agent Kristin’s. Just wanted to let you know I’m linking to you from my blog. We’ve a place on the edge of the Jacque Cousteau preserve in New Jersey. Migratory stop off point. Don’t get much chance to go there, but when I do, I mostly sit around and watch the show the birds put on for me.

  2. OOOoo, you lucky people! I am dying to go to some of those eastern US migratory watch points. I have a daughter living in Virginia, so I hope to make it one day.

    Bernita, on one of the Philippine islands, people do just that, literally snatching buzzards as they fly into trees totally exhausted after the flight from Japan. To eat them! Can you imagine how tough they must be?

  3. The monarch butterflies stop there also. Now THAT is an amazing site. And every spring the horseshoe crabs make landfall to mate. The place is a naturalist’s smorgasboard. I hope you get a chance sometime. It’s in a salt marsh, always something happening.

  4. I can remember once walking across the Hungarian steppes with a guy called Attila (now, how’s that for a GREAT line) in autumn, and watching the Red Admirals fly past. As they all seemed to be going in the same direction, one or so every couple of minutes, it was clear they were flying south on their way to Africa. I was enormously moved – those tiny things heading so far…

    To see the monarchs on the move must be really something. And those horseshoe crabs spawning bring in the waders – sigh. One day, one day.

  5. Lots of times the horseshoe crabs get flipped over. We flip them back before they fry in the sun. There is something in horseshoe crab’s blood that’s important for some special medicine, but I can’t remember what it is. But it’s very important. They only spawn in certain places. My little section of the Jersey shore is one of them. It’s sad because the local high school kids don’t always get it. They go there drinking at night and will smash the crabs. It upsets me when I see one smashed. It’s so wanton. The Jacques Cousteau preserve is watchdogged by Rutgers University and other environmental associations. On the other side of my little bit of paradise are the New Jersey Pinelands, one of 9 areas in the world considered so ecologically important that they are designated so by the UN. Place used to be so quiet and forgotten. Now lots of yuppies with SUV’s. The cappuchino places are sprouting.

    Never been to Hungary. Used to travel a lot, not so much anymore. But a guy named Attila. Who could forget that?

  6. That crab migration is of great importance to waders, which time their migration with the spawning as they eat the result – environmentalists are very worried that the the two events may get out of sync with the advent of global warming.

    Would love to get there one day.

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