How do Birds Navigate? – Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Senses

How do Birds Navigate? – Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Senses

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My name is Steve Bush, and am a professional
zookeeper. Have you ever seen a group of birds flying
overhead and wondered where they’re going? Why can birds fly hundreds or thousands of
miles to a feeding ground, while I get lost on the way to the store? How do they know which way is north or south? I looked into this question and found some
surprising answers. Let’s look at the interesting ways that birds
navigate. Many birds fly between areas with lots of
food. Parrots fly a few hundred miles. Canada geese fly 2 to 3 thousand miles in
their annual migration. And arctic terns take the prize for most ridiculously
long migration by flying a 12,000 mile migration from the Arctic to the Antarctic circle. But we’re not here to talk about migration. We’re here to talk about how they maintain
the sense of direction as they travel. Dead Reckoning
First off, and most simple, is the White Crowned Sparrow. They use dead reckoning. That means they know which direction to travel,
and they know how long to travel that direction, but they don’t know what their destination
is. Some researchers did an experiment. They captured White-crowned Sparrows migrating
due south between Washington and Southern California. They loaded them onto airplanes and flew them
across the country to New Jersey. The birds continued migrating. Juvenile sparrows that had never migrated
before just continued flying south as if nothing happened. So we are pretty sure that they have a built-in
set of migration instructions. Fly south for roughly so long, you’ll end
up where you need to be with all the other White-crowned sparrows. An interesting effect was noticed in that
experiment. While juvenile white-crowned sparrows did
not react to their plane flight, adults almost universally noticed that something happened. So adults either headed southwest, correctly
compensating for their cross-country detour and aiming toward Southern California, or
they went due west, which aimed them back toward their original migration path. So what did the adult sparrows use to determine
that they were in the wrong place? Scientists have looked at several different
possible answers. Sun compass
Birds can look at the sun and figure out which direction to go. This is more difficult than it sounds, because
obviously the sun changes position throughout the day. So for this to work, birds need both the ability
to see the sun and an internal clock so they know exactly what time it is and therefore
where the sun should be. Researchers trained European Starlings to
get food from a feeder in a particular compass direction. Then, using a mirror, they flipped the apparent
position of the sun. The bird responded by checking the feeder
in the opposite direction of what it was trained. Further experiments like this found that birds
are able to compensate for time of day, latitude, and season. So, looking good that birds have a sun compass. Star compass
Not only do birds use obvious information like the sun, they are able to use the position
of stars to navigate! Researchers put birds in a planetarium and
projected a starry sky for the birds to look at. But the stars in their projection were rotated,
meaning that the northern constellations were in the East. The birds may have been confused, but they
adapted quickly and oriented in the new “correct” direction and moved toward the new “south”
for their migration. Birds didn’t seem to use the North Star, but
did use constellations. The use of constellations means that they
could use this ability even in the southern hemisphere, where they can’t see the north
star. Unfamiliar constellations were useless to
the birds, which means that they learn constellations as they migrate and use them to navigate on
future migrations. Magnetic compass
We use magnetic compasses like this one all the time, and so do birds. Magnetic compasses respond to the Earth’s
magnetic field. Researchers put birds in weak artificial magnetic
fields and the birds reacted as it changed direction and intensity. We’re not sure exactly how birds sense the
Earth’s magnetic field at this time. There’s evidence to support the sense as located
in their beak, ears or eyes. Personally, I like the idea of them seeing
magnetic fields with special eye cells, because it would be such a cool sense to have. But for now, we don’t know for sure. Scientists have discovered other methods used
by birds. Landmarks are important. Birds use rivers, mountains, and forests to
find their way along a migration route. Some birds appear to use smell landmarks,
sniffing their way across a map of familiar smells. They also use polarized light that passes
through clouds if they can’t see the sun or stars due to weather. There may be even more senses that we don’t
know about. Thanks for taking the time to learn about
bird navigation. I hope you enjoyed your time here. If you did, navigate to the subscribe button
below so you don’t miss future videos. Thanks and have a great day!

6 thoughts on “How do Birds Navigate? – Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Senses

  • Eeriel Constantine Post author

    So most likely the reason why birds travel so well might be a combination of many methods and senses


    It's all amazing to learn about the navigation of these birds, and lots many things, to learn through your channel. You are a excellent narrator dear friend 😍 I love 💗your channel 👍

  • Michael Lawson Post author

    I wish I had those skills .

  • Jake Shumway Post author

    That's super cool

  • Donna L Long Post author

    Thank you. Your video was very informative. I have embedded it in a blog post and will share it with my readers at

  • Elbert Nathanael Post author

    Hi! Could I possible get the source for the experiment described in your video(around 1:27).

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