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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice