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
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
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
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
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
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.