Temporal fluctuations of the geomagnetic field affect pigeons’ entire homing flight

Abstract

Tracks of pigeons, recorded with the help of GPS-receivers from two sites 30 km north and south of the Frankfurt loft, were analyzed in view of an influence of irregular fluctuations of the geomagnetic field. The data obtained were correlated with indices characterizing different aspects of these fluctuations. We found the best correlations with the index quantifying the average amplitude of the magnetic disturbance, and with an index that quantifies the average variability of the magnetic field on the day of release: stronger and more variable fluctuations lead to a counter-clockwise shift of the mean headings during the initial phase at the release site and the following departure phase, but not during the final homing phase leading to the loft. The steadiness of flight was not affected during the initial phase; however, during the later parts of the homing flight, stronger fluctuations, as well as higher variability in the magnetic field led to a marked decrease in steadiness. This continuing effect of magnetic fluctuations indicates that magnetic factors not only affect the beginning, but remain an integral part of the pigeons’ navigational processes during the entire homing flight.

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Acknowledgments

Our work was supported by Human Frontier Science Program (grant to RW) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grants to RW). We sincerely thank S. Denzau, B. Fischer, P. Fuhrmann, S. Gass, D. Gehring, S. Henneböhl, K. Jakobi, H. Leps and C. Nießner for their valuablehelp with recording the tracks. Our study was performed in agreement with the rules and regulations for animal protection in Germany.

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Correspondence to Roswitha Wiltschko.

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Schiffner, I., Wiltschko, R. Temporal fluctuations of the geomagnetic field affect pigeons’ entire homing flight. J Comp Physiol A 197, 765–772 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-011-0640-y

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Keywords

  • Pigeon navigation
  • Magnetic field
  • Temporal fluctuations
  • GPS-recorded tracks
  • Columba livia f. domestica