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Calibration of magnetic and celestial compass cues in migratory birds - a review of cue-conflict experiments

  • Rachel Muheim
  • F R Moore
  • J B Phillips
Publishing year: 2006
Language: English
Pages: 2-17
Publication/Series: Journal of Experimental Biology
Volume: 209
Issue: 1
Document type: Journal article review
Publisher: The Company of Biologists Ltd

Abstract english

Migratory birds use multiple sources of compass information for orientation, including the geomagnetic field, the sun, skylight polarization patterns and star patterns. In this paper we review the results of cue-conflict experiments designed to determine the relative importance of the different compass mechanisms, and how directional information from these compass mechanisms is integrated. We focus on cue-conflict experiments in which the magnetic field was shifted in alignment relative to natural celestial cues. Consistent with the conclusions of earlier authors, our analyses suggest that during the premigratory season, celestial information is given the greatest salience and used to recalibrate the magnetic compass by both juvenile and adult birds. Sunset polarized light patterns from the region of the sky near the horizon appear to provide the calibration reference for the magnetic compass. In contrast, during migration, a majority of experiments suggest that birds rely on the magnetic field as the primary source of compass information and use it to calibrate celestial compass cues, i.e. the relative saliency of magnetic and celestial cues is reversed. An alternative possibility, however, is suggested by several experiments in which birds exposed to a cue conflict during migration appear to have recalibrated the magnetic compass, i.e. their response is similar to that of birds exposed to cue conflicts during the premigratory season.

The general pattern to emerge from these analyses is that birds exposed to the cue conflict with a view of the entire sunset sky tended to recalibrate the magnetic compass, regardless of whether the cue conflict occurred during the premigratory or migratory period. In contrast, birds exposed to the cue conflict in orientation funnels and registration cages that restricted their view of the region of sky near the horizon (as was generally the case in experiments carried out during the migratory season) did not recalibrate the magnetic compass but, instead, used the magnetic compass to calibrate the other celestial compass systems. If access to critical celestial cues, rather than the timing of exposure to the cue conflict (i.e. premigratory vs migratory), determines whether recalibration of the magnetic compass occurs, this suggests that under natural conditions there may be a single calibration reference for all of the compass systems of migratory birds that is derived from sunset (and possibly also sunrise) polarized light cues from the region of sky near the horizon.

In cue-conflict experiments carried out during the migratory season, there was also an interesting asymmetry in the birds' response to magnetic fields shifted clockwise and counterclockwise relative to celestial cues. We discuss two possible explanations for these differences: (1) lateral asymmetry in the role of the right and left eye in mediating light-dependent magnetic compass orientation and (2) interference from the spectral and intensity distribution of skylight at sunset with the response of the light-dependent magnetic compass.


  • Zoology


  • ISSN: 1477-9145
Rachel Muheim
E-mail: rachel [dot] muheim [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se


Functional zoology

+46 46 222 31 93



Centre for Animal Movement Research
Evolutionary Ecology, Department of Biology
Ecology building S-223 62 Lund Sweden