Flyers without a Compass

Flyers without a Compass

A compass, as everybody knows, is an instrument containing a magnetic needle which is mounted on a pivot, so that it can turn freely. The needle always points in the direction of the (magnetic) north and south poles. A person lost in the woods, or in a desert, without a compass, would walk around in circles and never be able to find his way. With the help of a compass, however, he can walk in the direction which will take him to his destination.

About a thousand years ago, before the compass was discovered, sea going ships had to navigate by the sun during the day, and by the stars during the night. When the sky was overcast, and there were no landmarks to go by, navigation was impossible.

The human being has not been given the power to find his way without some external marks or signs to guide him. A person must have a complete address to find his way: a street name, number, and other marks. Yet in the animal world, there is no need for such signs; animals have been endowed with a special sense of direction, which is one of the greatest wonders and mysteries of nature.

Take that small bird, the swallow, for example.

"One swallow does not make summer," they say. But it does bring us the good tidings that spring is here, and that many other - swallows will soon come to spend the warm days with us.

Some swallows travel as much as 10,000 miles in yearly migrations.

A swallow that spends the summer in New York may travel all the way to S. Paulo in Brazil to spend the winter there. When it returns to North America in the spring, the New York swallow, will not go to Newark, New Jersey; and going south back again it will not overshoot its destination and land in Buenos Aires. It will invariably return to its former place, often to its former nest, under the same roof, or in the same tree-hole, or bird house, as before.

A homing pigeon may be taken in a pitch-dark box, on a complicated journey of a 100 miles, with all sorts of twists and turns and detours, yet, no sooner is it released in the new and strange place than it will take off in the right direction, and unerringly find its way back home!

The blackcap, a small warbler summering in Europe, makes its way over the Balkans, Turkey, the Land of Israel, and up the Nile for its winter vacation. Some migrating birds travel by day and in formation, such as swallows, wild geese, storks and others.

Some birds, like blackcaps and other small songsters, travel only at night, and not in formation. Yet they find their way, too.

Stranger still, many of the migrating birds are young, making the trip for the first time!

Zoologists have carried out various experiments in an effort to discover how these flyers without a compass find their way. One experiment consisted of hatching eggs of migrating birds, and keeping them away from their own kind.

About a month after all the birds of their kind had left for the warm climates, the young birds were released. They had been ringed for identification. Sure enough, the young birds made their way to the same place where the rest of the colony had migrated, though nobody had ever shown them the way.

Zoologists are still baffled by this mysterious sense of migrating birds.

If it is still a mystery how the birds do it, it is somewhat less of a mystery why they do it. At one time it was thought that the reason why birds mi grate from the north to the south for the winter and return for the summer is that they could not bear the winter cold. But the question arises: If these birds had never stayed long enough to experience the snow and frost of the winter, how could they know that they had to fly away from winter?

Besides, if the reason of their migration is to avoid the cold winter, then why don't they remain in the tropical climates, where it is warm all year round, instead of making a difficult flight back to the north?

So this theory had to be abandoned.

Similarly it was thought that maybe the food problem was the real reason for the birds' migration south. During the wintry months in the northern countries, the snow blankets the earth and the cold interrupts insect life, which is the main source of food supply for the birds. Perhaps this is why the birds leave for the sunny climate? But this theory, too, had to be abandoned, for the same reasons as the first.

Many birds begin their migration in the month of August, when the temperature is highest, and the food supply is most plentiful.

It is now believed that the sunlight has something to do with the migration of birds. The length of the day varies in the Northern Hemisphere.

In the tropical countries the length of the day varies little, and near the Equator the day and night are of about the same length, 12 hours each. It seems, therefore, that birds seek long days of sunlight.

After many experiments and much research work, scientists have come to the conclusion that birds seemingly require much light in order to flourish and multiply. The longer days in the Northern Hemisphere, richer in ultraviolet and infrared rays, apparently help the birds to lay more eggs. At the same time, the long days enable them to feed themselves and their young, for, as is well known, birds have a ravenous appetite. Some baby birds eat nearly their own weight in food in one day!

That light helps birds to lay more eggs has now been well established. This knowledge has been put to good use by chicken breeders. They provide artificial light in the hen-houses, and in this way they increase the egg-laying capacity of the hens.

It is interesting to note that the Sages of the Talmud, some 2000 years ago, knew that day birds lay their eggs during the day, while night birds lay their eggs during the night (Talmud Betza 7a; Bechoroth 8a).

After all the experiments and observations by scientists and bird watchers, all they have been able to discover is the habits of birds, the time of their departures and arrivals, the routes they take, the length of their travels, and the speed of their flights.

But the question, How do birds find their way from their northern homes to their southern homes, and vice versa? still puzzles the scientists.

This is certainly one of the greatest wonders of the nature. We can only say "how marvellous are the ways of the Creator!"

In our Holy Scriptures (especially in the Book of Psalms, Iyov [Job], and others) our attention is often called to the wonders of nature and its awe inspiring forces.

Is it possible that the Creator endowed a little creature, like a bird, with an "internal compass," while He left the "choicest creature" - man - without a sense of direction, and without guidance to find his way?

The truth of the matter is that the Creator has provided us with the greatest and best guide in the world, namely, the Torah.

Torah means "guidance"; it is our true guide in life. Without it, we would be helpless, floundering, and completely lost. The Torah is our perfect "compass. "

If it is true that birds are drawn to the greatest amount of sunlight, we Jews are also drawn to the "light" - the light of the Torah, for the Torah is called "light." (Torah Ohr).

The difference, however, is that in the case of the birds, their "internal compass" and their sensitivity to light are natural instincts which compel them to act according to these laws of nature - laws which the Creator has created in them, and which cannot be changed.

Insofar as we are concerned, however, the Creator has given us an intellect and a will to act freely, not compulsively.

For G‑d desires that we should choose the right path - the path of true light and life - out of our own free will.

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