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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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.
Able KP (1982) Skylight polarization patterns at dusk influence migratory orientation in birds. Nature 299:550–551
Able KP (1989) Skylight polarization patterns and the orientation of migratory birds. J Exp Biol 141:241–256
Able KP, Able MA (1990a) Calibration of the magnetic compass of a migratory bird by celestial rotation. Nature 347:378–380
Able KP, Able MA (1990b) Ontogeny of migratory orientation in the savannah sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis: Mechanisms at sunset. Anim Behav 39:1189–1198
Able KP, Able MA (1993) Daytime calibration of magnetic orientation in a migratory bird requires a view of skylight polarization. Nature 364:523–525
Able KP, Able MA (1995) Interactions in the flexible orientation system of a migratory bird. Nature 375:230–232
Able KP, Able MA (1997) Development of sunset orientation in a migratory bird: no calibration by the magnetic field. Anim Behav 53:363–368
Alerstam T, Högstedt G (1983) The role of the geomagnetic field in the development of birds’ compass sense. Nature 306:463–465
Batschelet E (1981) Circular Statistics in Biology. Academic Press, London
Beck W, Wiltschko W (1982) The magnetic field as reference system for the genetically encoded migratory direction in Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca PALLAS). Z Tierpsychol 60:41–46
Beck W, Wiltschko W (1988) Magnetic factors control the migratory direction of Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca PALLAS). In: Ouellet H (ed) Acta XIX Congr Intern Ornithol, Ottawa 1986. University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, pp 1955–1962
Bingman VP (1983) Importance of the earth’s magnetism for the sunset orientation of migratory naive Savannah sparrows. Monit Zool Ital (N. S.) 17:395–400
Bingman VP (1987) Earth’s magnetism and the nocturnal orientation of migratory European Robins. Auk 104:523–525
Bingman VP, Wiltschko W (1988) Orientation of Dunnocks (Prunella modularis) at sunset. Ethology 77:1–9
Bletz H, Weindler P, Wiltschko R, Wiltschko W, Berthold P (1996) The magnetic field as reference for the innate migratory direction of blackcaps, Sylvia atricapilla. Naturwissenschaften 83:430–432
Cochran WW, Mouritsen H, Wikelski M (2004) Migrating songbirds recalibrate their magnetic compass daily from twilight cues. Science 304:405–408
Gwinner E, Wiltschko W (1978) Endogenously controlled changes in the migratory direction of the Garden Warbler, Sylvia borin. J Comp Physiol 125:267–273
Helbig A (2003) Evolution of bird migration. In: Berthold P, Gwinner E, Sonnenschein E (eds) Avian migration. Springer, Berlin, pp 3–20
Helbig AJ, Wiltschko W (1989) The skylight polarization patterns at dusk affects the orientation behavior of Blackcaps, Sylvia atricapilla. Naturwissenschaften 76:227–229
Katz YB (1985) Sunset and the orientation of European Robins (Erithacus rubecula). Anim Behav 33:825–828
Moore FR (1978) Sunset and the orientation of a nocturnal migrant bird. Nature 274:154–156
Moore FR (1986) Sunrise, skylight polarization and the early morning orientation of night migrating warblers. Condor 88:493–498
Moore FR, Phillips JB (1988) Sunset, skylight polarization and the migratory orientation of yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata). Anim Behav 36:1770–1778
Muheim R, Moore FR, Phillips JB (2006a) Calibration of magnetic and celestial compass cues in migratory birds - a review of cue conflict experiments. J Exp Biol 209:2–17
Muheim R, Phillips JB, Åkesson S (2006b) Polarized light cues underlie compass cue integration in migratory songbirds. Science 313:837–839
Muheim R, Åkesson S, Phillips JB (2007) Magnetic compass of migratory Savannah Sparrows is calibrated by skylight polarization at sunrise and sunset. J Ornithol 148(Suppl 2):S485–S494
Munro U, Wiltschko W, Ford HA (1993) Changes in the migratory direction of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Lichenostomus chrysops (Meliphagidae) during autumn migration. Emu 93:59–62
Perdeck AC (1958) Two types of orientation in migrating Starlings Sturnus vulgaris and Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs, as revealed by displacement experiments. Ardea 46:1–37
Perdeck AC (1983) An experiment of the orientation of juvenile Starlings during spring migration: an addendum. Ardea 71:255
Sandberg R, Bäckmann J, Moore FR, Lohmus M (2000) Magnetic information calibrates celestial cues during migration. Anim Behav 60:453–462
Schneider T, Thalau HP, Semm P, Wiltschko W (1994) Melatonin is crucial for the migratory orientation of Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca Pallas). J Exp Biol 194:255–262
Shumakov ME (1990) The development or orientation capabilities of young night migrants under natural and experimental conditions. Baltic Birds 5:146–149
Wiltschko R, Wiltschko W (1999) Celestial and magnetic cues in experimental conflict. In: Adams N, Slotow R (eds) Proceedings of 22th international ornithological congress, University of Natal, Durban, South Africa, pp 988–1004
Wiltschko R, Munro U, Ford H, Wiltschko W (1999) After-effects of exposure to conflicting celestial and magnetic cues at sunset in migratory Silvereyes, Zosterops lateralis. J Avian Biol 30:56–62
Wiltschko R, Munro U, Ford H, Wiltschko W (2001) Orientation in migratory birds: time-associated relearning of celestial cues. Anim Behav 62:245–250
Wiltschko W, Gwinner E (1974) Evidence for an innate magnetic compass in Garden Warblers. Naturwissenschaften 61:406
Wiltschko W, Wiltschko R (1975a) The interaction of stars and magnetic field in the orientation system of night migrating birds. I. Autumn experiments with European Warblers (Gen. Sylvia). Z Tierpsychol 37:337–355
Wiltschko W, Wiltschko R (1975b) The interaction of stars and magnetic field in the orientation system of night migrating birds. II. Spring experiments with European Robins (Erithacus rubecula). Z Tierpsychol 39:265–282
Wiltschko W, Wiltschko R, Keeton WT, Maddon R (1983) Growing up in an altered magnetic field affects the initial orientation of young homing pigeons. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 12:135–142
Wiltschko W, Wiltschko R, Munro U, Ford H (1998a) Magnetic versus celestial cues: cue-conflict experiments with migrating silvereyes at dusk. J Comp Physiol A 182:521–925
Wiltschko W, Weindler P, Wiltschko R (1998b) Interaction of magnetic and celestial cues in the migratory orientation of passerines. J Avian Biol 29:606–617
Wiltschko W, Munro U, Ford H, Wiltschko R (2006) Bird navigation:what type of information does the magnetite-based receptor provide? Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 273:2815–2820
Wiltschko W, Freire R, Munro U, Ritz T, Rogers L, Thalau P et al (2007) The magnetic compass of domestic chickens, Gallus gallus. J Exp Biol 210:2300–2310
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.
Communicated by H. Mouritsen.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Magnetic compass
- Polarized light
- Conflicting cues
- Compass calibration
- Migratory birds