It’s worthwhile to wonder what millions of birds living in the northern temperate zones of the world would be thinking and feeling at this time of the year: Why am I so restless and hungry all the time, stuffing my face and putting on enormous amounts of weight? Why are so many of us gathering together in huge excited flocks, on telegraph poles or trees, or lakes and fields, arguing and fidgeting and conducting flying sorties all the time?
This process begins as early as July and August, depending on what species you are. And then, one fine day, you (and the rest of the raucous flock) can’t hold back any longer. You take off and sort yourself out into great echelons or the famous V formations, gain height and set out on (a southern) course using the sun. If you’re a tiny tot, you just fly in one big tight bunch. You may not be aware, but it is nearly exactly the same day that you set forth, last year, and the same day that you’ll set forth in the coming year — if you survive so long, of course. If you are a tiny warbler, you may decide to leave at night, using the glittering stars as your guide. It’s safer in the dark.
Further inputs to the course you are on are determined by the earth’s magnetic and gravitational fields, and you supplement these by looking out for familiar landmarks: a winding silver river, mountain ranges or a long coastline. You set your speed at a steady 50 kmph if you are a tiny tot or double that if you’re a duck, goose or crane and can maintain that for half a day. (Of course, you know, there are those marathoners that can fly non-stop for over 2,500 km, good luck to them). If you are a bar-headed goose, you may climb to jetliner altitudes in order to fly over great mountain ranges. Of course, there are transit halts, for rest and refueling — on lakes, swamps, river banks, fields and meadows.
Danger lurks everywhere though. Behind you, great flocks of raptors — glint-eyed eagles, hawks and buzzards — may follow in loose, casual formations, like gangs of swaggering hoodlums, picking off stragglers. Buzzards may conduct “health checks” over lakes, spooking your resting flock and homing in on those too tired or ill to scramble quickly enough. Worse, there are men with guns waiting everywhere, hidden behind the reeds with their dogs, or crouching besides rocks and boulders along the great mountain passes, just waiting. Some use below-the-belt tactics: they’ll set out decoys — real or artificial — and lull you into believing it’s safe to come down. Then the guns open up. Or if you’re a low-flying crane, they will suddenly rise out of the earth and throw weighted slings to entangle your legs and bring you down.
The casualties can be horrific. If you’ve flown this gauntlet before, you would have learnt to “jink” and “whiffle” and avoid the deadly spray of shotgun pellets. You would have learned that to fly in large flocks may be safer because you have a lesser chance of being picked off. By jinking and whiffling in unison, you confuse predators and upset the aim of the men with guns. The weather can be another spoiler. A freak storm can blow you off course and worse, over the sea; hail can bring you down as easily as any gunfire; fog and lights can disorient you. And again, often there will be men, like the sirens of the seas, waiting to take advantage of your distress and confusion.
The journey can be long — all of 8,000 km — or short — just a sojourn from the high mountains down to the plains, depending on what species you are. And then, after you’ve flown over — or through — the great mountains, and have followed familiar river courses — or even expressways — your pulse quickens as you recognise landmarks. And then, finally one day, you’ll whistle over a familiar friendly water-body like a squadron of jet fighters and rapidly drop height and splash down with a happy wag of your tail. It’s the same water-body which served as your winter resort for as long as you remember and you have arrived here on virtually the same day as you did last year. Or again, if you’re a warbler or a redstart or a wagtail, you’ll recognise the same garden or park or woodland you spent your last winter in.
The reason behind this arduous trip is simple: you knew that in the days to come, there would be nothing to eat in your beloved “homeland” where, through spring and summer, you brought up your broods: the ground will now be hard as granite, if not covered with ice and snow, and all vegetation and insect life extinguished. Here, for the next five to six months, there’s just rest and recreation in buttery sunshine (the usual dangers, notwithstanding). You can sleep, head tucked in wing till 1 pm, every day, even as birders stamp their feet and glare impatiently (poor fools have been up since 4 am). But then, as the days begin to lengthen and warm up, you’ll feel that impatient tug in your breast again. You may or may not have met the bird of your dreams here. But you know you must fly back to your homeland (where life has begin to burgeon again), stake out a territory, find the love of your life (if you haven’t already) and settle down. Another momentous journey lies ahead.
Ah, but don’t get too ahead of yourself because of this wonderful achievement. There are flimsy butterflies out there that fly even more momentous journeys, and tiny spiderlings who think nothing of parasailing the world on a slender line of silk. Match that.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.