Magnetic Compass Orientation

This paper is a very good overview of the thinking about avian migratory navigation and acknowledges that birds use all the cues that are available to them to navigate successfully.

Magnetic Compass Orientation in a Palaearctic–Indian Night Migrant, the Red-Headed Bunting


The earth’s magnetic field, celestial cues, and retention of geographical cues en route provide birds with compass knowledge during migration. The magnetic compass works on the direction of the magnetic field, specifically, the course of the field lines. We tested Red-headed Buntings in orientation cages in the evening during spring migration. Simulated overcast testing resulted in a northerly mean direction, while in clear skies, birds oriented in an NNW (north–northwest) direction. Buntings were exposed to 120° anticlockwise shifted magnetic fields under simulated overcast skies and responded by shifting their orientation accordingly. The results showed that this Palaearctic night migrant possesses a magnetic compass, as well as the fact that magnetic cues act as primary directional messengers. When birds were exposed to different environmental conditions at 22 °C and 38 °C temperatures under simulated overcast conditions, they showed a delay in Zugunruhe (migratory restlessness) at 22 °C, while an advance migratory restlessness was observed under 38 °C conditions. Hot and cold weather clearly influenced the timing of migrations in Red-headed Buntings, but not the direction.

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