Contradictory results on the role of polarized light in compass calibration in migratory songbirds

Abstract

Experiments with migrating birds on the interaction between magnetic and celestial cues have produced heterogeneous results. A recent study claimed that the magnetic compass in passerine migrants is calibrated by the pattern of polarized light at sunset and sunrise and that the area just above the horizon is crucial for this calibration. To test the latter hypothesis, we performed a similar experiment with Australian Silvereyes. It produced contrary results, however, the birds, in spite of observing the natural polarization pattern at sunrise and sunset down to the horizon in an altered magnetic field, continued in their normal southerly magnetic direction when subsequently tested in the local geomagnetic field—the conflict between magnetic and polarized light cues had not caused them to recalibrate their magnetic compass. This contradicts the assumption that skylight polarization patterns generally serve as a primary calibration reference for migratory songbirds.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The paper by Cochran et al. (2004) is also often quoted as indicating a re-calibration of magnetic cues by polarized light cues. Unfortunately, this study is not comparable to those mentioned above, because the orientation of these birds was not recorded in cages. Instead, the birds were released directly after the exposure to the conflicting cues and followed by transmitters. For the experimental birds, magnetic North had been turned towards east; they showed a westward deviation from the controls. This deviation is usually assumed to reflect orientation by re-calibrated magnetic cues—however, this is not the only possible interpretation. Sandberg et al. (2000) exposed migrants to conflicting cues in cages at sunset, where they followed the altered magnetic field. When these birds were subsequently released, they departed in directions that suggested re-calibration of celestial cues by the magnetic field. The deviation in the opposite direction observed by Cochran et al. (2004) a while after release might indicate orientation by celestial cues, with the birds overcompensating for the previous re-calibration. Such overcompensation has been observed before in young pigeons that had learned a false sun compass: on their first flight under the sun, the birds deviated from the controls to the side that suggested calibration of the sun compass by the magnetic compass; yet later, on their second flight under the sun, they overcompensated their error and showed a pronounced deviation to the opposite side (Wiltschko et al. 1983). It cannot be excluded that the observations by Cochran et al. (2004) in free-flying birds reflect a related phenomenon.

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Acknowledgments

Our study was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. We sincerely thank S. Debus and G. Lollback for catching the test birds, F. Geiser for logistic support, and L. Warnecke for her help with the experiments. The experiments were performed according to with the rules and regulations of animal welfare and experimentation in Australia.

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Correspondence to Roswitha Wiltschko.

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Communicated by H. Mouritsen.

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Wiltschko, R., Munro, U., Ford, H. et al. Contradictory results on the role of polarized light in compass calibration in migratory songbirds. J Ornithol 149, 607–614 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-008-0324-8

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Keywords

  • Magnetic compass
  • Polarized light
  • Conflicting cues
  • Compass calibration
  • Migratory birds