Quirks & Quarks

Birds have a compass, not a map

Scientists strapped tiny backpack on birds and found they are worse at navigation than previously thought.
A White-throated Sparrow (Brett Forsyth)

The navigation techniques used by migrating birds has long been a source of great interest for biologists.  

A new study by Dr. Ryan Norris from the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph has found that the white-throated sparrow is capable of finding its way by using the Earth's magnetic field, as well as sense of smell. But it's not a true navigator.  

White-throated Sparrow: 83% breed in the boreal forest (Jeff Nadler/Boreal Birds Need Half)

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In an experiment, the birds were displaced 3,000 kilometres to the west of the Ontario stop on their northward migration toward the boreal forest.  When released, the sparrows continued to fly north, unaware of their displacement.  This shows that they are capable of navigating by latitude, but not longitude.

The researchers believe that because this species of sparrow does not migrate over as long a distance as other birds, and has a huge migrational target, the boreal forest,  it may not require true navigational skills.        

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