Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Skylight polarization patterns at dusk influence migratory orientation in birds


Over 100 animal species are known to be able to perceive the plane of polarization of linearly polarized light; most of these are arthropods but several molluscs and vertebrates, including man, share this ability1,2. At least five aquatic vertebrates (three fish, a salamander and a larval frog) are capable of oriented movement based on the E-vector of linearly polarized light3–9. Pigeons (Columba livia) have been conditioned to discriminate between rotating and stationary polarized light and between widely separated stationary E-vectors10,11, but the behavioural significance of this ability remains unknown. I report here that the migratory orientation of the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), a nocturnal migrant, is affected by manipulations of the axis of skylight polarization. These data provide the first evidence that polarized light may be a relevant cue in migratory orientation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Waterman, T. H. in Biology Data Book Vol. 2 (eds Altman, P. L. & Dittmer, D. S.) (Fedn Am. Soc. exp. Biol., Bethesda, Maryland, 1973); in Handbook of Sensory Physiology Vol. 7, Pt 6b (ed. Autrum, H.) (Springer, Berlin, 1981).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Haidinger, W. Annln Phys. 63, 29–39 (1844).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Waterman, T. H. in Animal Orientation and Navigation (eds Galler, S. R., Schmidt-Koenig, K., Jacobs, G. J. & Belleville, R. E.) (NASA, Washington DC, 1972).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Forward, R. B. & Waterman, T. H. J. cell. Physiol. 87, 189–202 (1973).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Horch, K. W. & Waterman, T. H. Biol. Bull. 143, 112–126 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Kleerekoper, H., Matis, J. H., Timms, A. M. & Gensler, P. J. cell. Physiol. 86, 27–36 (1973).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Adler, K. & Taylor, D. H. J. cell. Physiol. 87, 203–212 (1973).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Taylor, D. H. & Adler, K. Science 181, 285–287 (1973).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Auburn, J. S. & Taylor, D. H. Anim. Behav. 27, 658–668 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Kreithen, M. L. & Keeton, W. T. J. cell. Physiol. 89, 83–92 (1974).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Delius, J. D., Perchard, R. J. & Emmerton, J. J. comp. physiol. Psychol. 90, 560–571 (1976).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Able, K. P. in Animal Migration, Orientation and Navigation (ed. Gauthreaux, S. A.) (Academic, New York, 1980).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Moore, F. R. Nature 274, 154–156 (1978); Anim. Behav. 28, 684–704 (1980).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Bingman, V. P. & Able, K. P. Anim. Behav. 27, 621–622 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Able, K. P. in Animal Migration, Navigation, and Homing (eds Schmidt-Koenig, K. & Keeton, W. T.) (Springer, Heidelberg, 1978); Anim. Behav. 30, 761–767 (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  16. von Saint-Paul, U. Behaviour 6, 1–7 (1953).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Able, K. P. & Dillon, P. M. Condor 79, 393–395 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Rozenberg, G. V. Twilight (Plenum, New York, 1966).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  19. Coulson, K. L. in Planets, Stars and Nebulae Studied with Photopolarimetry (ed. Gehrels, T.) (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1974).

    Google Scholar 

  20. Brines, M. L. & Gould, J. L. J. exp. Biol. 96, 69–91 (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  21. von Frisch, K. Experientia 5, 142–148 (1949); The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees (Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1967).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Brines, M. L. J. theor. Biol. 86, 507–512 (1980).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Emlen, S. T. & Emlen, J. T. Auk 83, 361–367 (1966).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Batschelet, E. Circular Statistics in Biology (Academic, London, 1981).

    MATH  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Able, K. Skylight polarization patterns at dusk influence migratory orientation in birds. Nature 299, 550–551 (1982).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing