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Letters to Nature
Nature 347, 378 - 380 (27 September 1990); doi:10.1038/347378a0

Calibration of the magnetic compass of a migratory bird by celestial rotation

Kenneth P. Able & Mary A. Able

Department of Biological Sciences, State University of New York at Albany, New York 12222, USA

MIGRATORY birds use a variety of environmental stimuli in orientation. Species that migrate primarily at night can use compasses based on the geomagnetic field, stars, the Sun and patterns of skylight polarization1–4. These compass mechanisms can interact both when migratory birds make day-to-day orientation decisions5 and during their ontogeny in young birds6,7. All of the known compasses used by migratory birds seem to be modifiable by experience during early development. For example, a functional magnetic compass develops in birds that have never seen the sky8–11. But the preferred direction of orientation by the magnetic compass may be modified during the first three months of life by exposing naive birds to the sky under conditions in which magnetic directions differ substantially from compass directions indicated by the Sun and stars (true or geographic directions)6,9,10. For hand-raised Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis), experience with either the clear daytime or night sky is sufficient to effect this calibration of the magnetic compass11. We therefore proposed that celestial rotation, which provides a source of geographic directions both day and night, is the calibrating reference. Here we report that the rotation of an artificial pattern of 'stars' calibrates the preferred direction of magnetic orientation of young Savannah sparrows.

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