The annual migrations of vast numbers of waterfowl have always awed and mystified mankind. When the sky is full of ducks as far as we can see, or when we hear a distant honking sound and discover a great V of geese overhead, we  wonder where they came from, where do they go, and how do they find their way so surely back and forth, each spring and fall.  

In late September, ducks are joined by their larger cousins the geese, in an amazing Odyssey which will end in a land fall on the shore of the Delta on their way to their wintering ground down at Fayuwm and around the shores of lake Nasser, further south. 

Biologists believe birds' migratory journeys are guided by a combination of elements, including the stars, sun, the earth's magnetic field, and topographic landmarks.  

Of all the navigational tools used by waterfowl, geography is where the greatest changes occur from one migration to the next. 

The sun is just beginning to crest the horizon, and one can see their silhouettes on the water and in the sky.  The thunder of wings and quacks shakes you in your boots, made by the thousands of startled ducks and geese about to take flight and fill the horizon. The sound of ducks taking flight is  quite deafening. It is a scene that repeats itself every fall when the time has come to travel south to warmer climate. A magical moment that is never forgotten. Their annual Odyssey had just begun. 

In our part of the world (Egypt), flocks of ducks, geese and quails head south to Egypt like clock work. This essay is about the untold odyssey of these intrepid waterfowls and their amazing journey to Egypt as witnessed through our history in a physical, as well as a linguistic way

Here is where our amazing journey begins.   

The setting is thousands of years ago, at the end of summer.  The last of the flocks have just left southern Europe.  After a quick flight of six to eight hours over the Aegean islands they are en route to the Island of Crete in the middle of the Mediterranean. There , the waterfowls congregate on the north coast around Souda bay (between Vamos and Chania) where the water is warmer and calmer than on the south coast (1)

After a short pause to feed and to rest for one or more days, their crossing resumes, beginning with the first wave of "bachelor" flocks of geese and ducks, composed of sexually immature waterfowls of from one to three years in age. The rest of the flocks which constitutes the bulk of the migratory birds will follow in a few days.   

In these annual crossings, waterfowls fly faster during migration than during ordinary flying.  Their speed depends upon the conditions through which they fly.  Average ducks, geese and quails, fly at 59 miles (95  kilometers) per hour. The flock covers the first leg of the journey, about 600 miles (970  kilometers), in five days.  During the period of their flight, they fly only two of the nights, using the other three nights for resting, and the days for feeding. 

Geese migrating from southern Europe to Egypt usually cover the distance of over 800 miles in a single day but, at  the other end of the scale, ducks and quails may have to travel almost 2000 miles from their breeding territory in southern Russia, Ukraine and the Balkans, and they are likely to complete the journey in stages spread over a period of several weeks. 

Further south, on the shore of the Egyptian Delta, the sun is just beginning to sink on the horizon, and one can see the silhouettes of ducks and geese reflected on the water and in the sky coming from their last stop in Crete.  

Geese especially tend to travel in family groups, led by the oldest members which will have already experienced several annual migration cycles.  

Meanwhile, veteran hens of the migratory flocks are said to be the first to benefit because they're familiar with their surroundings and can make optimal use of resources.  Ideally, their habitat is the wetlands and seasonal pools (2) which are created by the annual Nile flood.  


Although there may be a degree of instinctive behavior involved in the timing of migrations and in navigating over sea areas, wildfowl seem to be able to alter their patterns of  movement to take in account environmental changes and will return to places where food has been plentiful in former  years while forsaking previously favored areas which have become inhospitable.  In these conditions, wetlands, lakes, ponds, and marshes are needed in order for waterfowl to reproduce at  high levels. Without abundant places to reproduce in the spring, there will usually be a corresponding decrease in the number of ducks in the fall.  

For example, changes in the environment, usually resulting in  habitat loss, are challenging to birds that rely on the same habitats year after year. 

Along the pathways of some migratory birds,  especially  waterfowls, are key wetland rest stops called staging areas.  In these areas, birds eat to regain energy and rest for the next part of the journey.  When key habitats and water pools are lost to development, as with the building of the High Dam in Egypt, migrants were hard pressed to find alternatives areas.  Loss of wintering ground habitats has significantly impacted migrating waterfowl that return in the fall. 

Such as in the case of the crowding conditions in the lake Qaruwn area.  The last four decades saw the hens ending up nesting further south, around the newly formed lake Nasser.  There, they remain all winter until they resume their trek back to Europe in early spring, shortly before the khamasiyn sandy wind in April.  

Recent studies on waterfowls on Egypt's Fayuwm wintering grounds has shown that bonds between males and females are retained  for many years because the birds meet and re-pair at the same  point every winter.  At  that time, certain female ducks lead their mates back to the area where the females were raised. It's a waterfowl tradition which helps to increase a hen's chance of raising a brood.

If by accident, their broods is conceived late, some selected elders will faithfully remain behind, taking care of the goslings until they mature.   

In their breeding habits wildfowl demonstrate a considerable degree of adaptation to their environment. Most duck species nest at ground level and, in consequence, they can suffer fairly high losses as a result of predators or flooding. Sitting ducks may fall prey to foxes, which are a  threat to both eggs and young ducklings. The survival of the species in such adverse conditions is assisted by the fact that duck lay fairly large clutches of eggs and the ducklings are able to walk and swim within a few hours of hatching.  

Geese, being larger birds, are less susceptible to predators and tend to have a smaller brood size than most duck species. Both parents normally share in the protection of eggs and goslings. Young ducks and geese mature at a rapid rate . 

The precise mechanism by which migration is guided is not yet completely understood.  It appears probable that memory and experiential learning are crucial to the migrations of ducks and geese. 

In the case of these annual Odysseys to Egypt, the migration paths of waterfowls are passed on from one generation to the next.  Bird migrations are very much a part of human history. It is said that birds migrate because their parents migrated, and their parents migrated because their parents migrated, and on and on back across the ages back across the ages.   

Amazingly, when it comes to the terms these amazing birds are known by in Egypt, the same phenomenon is repeated.   The Ancient Egyptian term for a duck , is "Pat" ,  while the one for a goose is "Wsha",  the term for quail is "Smn". They have all respectively survived in our Arabic language as Batt, Wizz, and Siman

Further, even the term for lake or pool "Brkta" has remained equally the same in Arabic: Birkah.

Apparently, we Egyptians,  like waterfowls, have learned these terms from our parents, and their parents learned them from their parents, and so on. 

Like waterfowl odysseys from the beginning of time, the linguistic odyssey has astoundingly lasted through 20,000 Egyptian generations  (or 5000 years) with hardly any change. Dare I to say: An equally awesome and impressive record. Would you not agree?

Across the Mediterranean, the same Egyptian terms for goose and duck have influenced other cultures and spread though the medium of the Arabic language in Medieval times, to languages like Late Latin, "Auca",  French "oie" (cf Arabic, 'Awz, wizzah) for goose and in Spanish, Portuguese and Albanian languages as "Pata" for duck (cf. Arabic, battah


(1) The water on the south coast of Crete is slightly colder because the mountains drop steeply into the sea and in addition there are a number of cold underground springs emerging into the sea.
(2) Wetlands and Lakes of Egypt such as: Edkuw, Mariywut, al-Burullus, al-Minzalah and al-Bardawiyl. All on the Nothern shore of Egypt. While lake Qaruwn in Faywum and lake Nasser behind the Aswan high Dam are in land.

© BassemZaki 2005