Magnetic information calibrates celestial cues during migration

R Sandberg
J Backman
Frank R. Moore, University of Southern Mississippi
M Lohmus


Migratory birds use celestial and geomagnetic directional information to orient on their way between breeding and wintering areas. Cue-conflict experiments involving these two orientation cue systems have shown that directional information can be transferred from one system to the other by calibration. We designed experiments with four species of North American songbirds to: (1) examine whether these species calibrate orientation information from one system to the other; and (2) determine whether there are species-specific differences in calibration. Migratory orientation was recorded with two different techniques, cage tests and free-flight release rests, during autumn migration. Cage tests at dusk in the local geomagnetic field revealed species-specific differences: red-eyed vireo, Vireo olivaceus, and northern waterthrush, Seiurus noveboracensis, selected seasonally appropriate southerly directions whereas indigo bunting, Passerina cyanea, and grey catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, oriented towards the sunset direction. When tested in deflected magnetic fields, vireos and waterthrushes responded by shifting their orientation according to the deflection of the magnetic field, but buntings and catbirds failed to show any response to the treatment. In release tests, all four species showed that they had recalibrated their star compass on the basis of the magnetic field they had just experienced in the cage tests. Since release tests were done in the local geomagnetic field it seems clear that once the migratory direction is determined, most likely during the twilight period, the birds use their recalibrated star compass for orientation at departure. (C) 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.