Michael McCarthy - Migration: 'One of earth's great wonders'

Share
Related Topics

The African-Eurasian bird migration system is one of the earth's great wonders, a gigantic signal of spring and autumn in the northern hemisphere.

It features as many as five billion mainly tiny creatures, which twice a year make epic journeys between their wintering grounds in Africa and breeding grounds in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Imagine: you're the size of a Mars bar, with wings each the size of a credit card, and you set off from Senegal one day to fly to Surrey. That means crossing the Sahara, the world's biggest desert – hope you can find enough food – crossing north Africa, crossing the Mediterranean on those tiny wings, maybe crossing Spain, crossing France, and then crossing the Channel. And eventually you get there, to a wood near Guildford, say, having survived the weather, and exhaustion, and hunters, and predators such as falcons on your 2,000-mile journey – and five months later, having produced your chicks, you have to fly back again.

Tough? Well, that's what life is like if you're a willow warbler, or any of the 48 of Britain's 215 or so breeding bird species which are long-distance migrants that breed here but winter in sub-Saharan Africa. The list includes many of the birds which are most culturally resonant for us: the nightingale, the cuckoo, the swallow, the swift, the majority of our warblers.

In fact they are not really British birds wintering in Africa. It is much more accurate to describe them as African birds summering in Britain.

They pour out of Africa every spring and fly all over Europe to nest, with more than 120 species heading to the continent west of the Urals, and about 200 heading to Eurasia as a whole. They fly north to escape the competition back home, and to profit from the much greater summer day-length of the high latitudes, which offers more time for finding food for hungry chicks. The advantages of coming clearly outweigh the problems of the journey, or they would not do it, and for millions of years they have done it successfully: despite mass mortalities en route, untold numbers of birds get through, and reproduce.

But now the balance may be tipping against them. It may be climate change; it may be habitat loss. No one yet knows, but something is disrupting the whole system, and their numbers are plunging. So if you're in the countryside this week, with many of the birds just arriving back, enjoy the song of the willow warblers, and the cuckoos, and the nightingales if you're lucky. You may have less time to enjoy them than you think.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Recruitment Consultant - Soho - IT, Pharma, Public Sector

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35,000 first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: odd pub names, final polls in Scotland and war historians

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: We are winning the fight against extreme poverty and hunger. It's time to up the ante

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week