Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 149, Issue 4, pp 607–614 | Cite as

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

  • Roswitha Wiltschko
  • Ursula Munro
  • Hugh Ford
  • Wolfgang Wiltschko
Original Article


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.


Magnetic compass Polarized light Conflicting cues Compass calibration Migratory birds 



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.


  1. Able KP (1982) Skylight polarization patterns at dusk influence migratory orientation in birds. Nature 299:550–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Able KP (1989) Skylight polarization patterns and the orientation of migratory birds. J Exp Biol 141:241–256Google Scholar
  3. Able KP, Able MA (1990a) Calibration of the magnetic compass of a migratory bird by celestial rotation. Nature 347:378–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Able KP, Able MA (1990b) Ontogeny of migratory orientation in the savannah sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis: Mechanisms at sunset. Anim Behav 39:1189–1198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Able KP, Able MA (1993) Daytime calibration of magnetic orientation in a migratory bird requires a view of skylight polarization. Nature 364:523–525CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Able KP, Able MA (1995) Interactions in the flexible orientation system of a migratory bird. Nature 375:230–232CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Able KP, Able MA (1997) Development of sunset orientation in a migratory bird: no calibration by the magnetic field. Anim Behav 53:363–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Alerstam T, Högstedt G (1983) The role of the geomagnetic field in the development of birds’ compass sense. Nature 306:463–465CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Batschelet E (1981) Circular Statistics in Biology. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  10. 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 60:41–46Google Scholar
  11. 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 1955–1962Google Scholar
  12. Bingman VP (1983) Importance of the earth’s magnetism for the sunset orientation of migratory naive Savannah sparrows. Monit Zool Ital (N. S.) 17:395–400Google Scholar
  13. Bingman VP (1987) Earth’s magnetism and the nocturnal orientation of migratory European Robins. Auk 104:523–525Google Scholar
  14. Bingman VP, Wiltschko W (1988) Orientation of Dunnocks (Prunella modularis) at sunset. Ethology 77:1–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 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 83:430–432Google Scholar
  16. Cochran WW, Mouritsen H, Wikelski M (2004) Migrating songbirds recalibrate their magnetic compass daily from twilight cues. Science 304:405–408PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gwinner E, Wiltschko W (1978) Endogenously controlled changes in the migratory direction of the Garden Warbler, Sylvia borin. J Comp Physiol 125:267–273CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Helbig A (2003) Evolution of bird migration. In: Berthold P, Gwinner E, Sonnenschein E (eds) Avian migration. Springer, Berlin, pp 3–20Google Scholar
  19. Helbig AJ, Wiltschko W (1989) The skylight polarization patterns at dusk affects the orientation behavior of Blackcaps, Sylvia atricapilla. Naturwissenschaften 76:227–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Katz YB (1985) Sunset and the orientation of European Robins (Erithacus rubecula). Anim Behav 33:825–828CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Moore FR (1978) Sunset and the orientation of a nocturnal migrant bird. Nature 274:154–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Moore FR (1986) Sunrise, skylight polarization and the early morning orientation of night migrating warblers. Condor 88:493–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Moore FR, Phillips JB (1988) Sunset, skylight polarization and the migratory orientation of yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata). Anim Behav 36:1770–1778CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 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 209:2–17PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Muheim R, Phillips JB, Åkesson S (2006b) Polarized light cues underlie compass cue integration in migratory songbirds. Science 313:837–839PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 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–S494CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Munro U, Wiltschko W, Ford HA (1993) Changes in the migratory direction of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Lichenostomus chrysops (Meliphagidae) during autumn migration. Emu 93:59–62Google Scholar
  28. Perdeck AC (1958) Two types of orientation in migrating Starlings Sturnus vulgaris and Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs, as revealed by displacement experiments. Ardea 46:1–37Google Scholar
  29. Perdeck AC (1983) An experiment of the orientation of juvenile Starlings during spring migration: an addendum. Ardea 71:255Google Scholar
  30. Sandberg R, Bäckmann J, Moore FR, Lohmus M (2000) Magnetic information calibrates celestial cues during migration. Anim Behav 60:453–462PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 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 194:255–262PubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Shumakov ME (1990) The development or orientation capabilities of young night migrants under natural and experimental conditions. Baltic Birds 5:146–149Google Scholar
  33. 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 988–1004Google Scholar
  34. 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 30:56–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Wiltschko R, Munro U, Ford H, Wiltschko W (2001) Orientation in migratory birds: time-associated relearning of celestial cues. Anim Behav 62:245–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Wiltschko W, Gwinner E (1974) Evidence for an innate magnetic compass in Garden Warblers. Naturwissenschaften 61:406PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 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 37:337–355PubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. 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 39:265–282PubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. 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 12:135–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 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 182:521–925CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Wiltschko W, Weindler P, Wiltschko R (1998b) Interaction of magnetic and celestial cues in the migratory orientation of passerines. J Avian Biol 29:606–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 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 273:2815–2820CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 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 210:2300–2310PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roswitha Wiltschko
    • 1
  • Ursula Munro
    • 2
  • Hugh Ford
    • 3
  • Wolfgang Wiltschko
    • 1
  1. 1.Fachbereich BiowissenschaftenJ.W.Goethe-Universität FrankfurtFrankfurtGermany
  2. 2.Department of Environmental SciencesUniversity of Technology, SydneyBroadwayAustralia
  3. 3.School of Environmental and Rural SciencesUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia

Personalised recommendations