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: www.raptorwatch.org
Or watch this space.