How birds use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate
by Peter Meredith
Can birds see the Earth’s magnetic field? The latest research on navigation suggests they can and even hints that humans may be able to detect it too.
Since the 1960s, scientists have confirmed that more than 20 migratory species of bird use the Earth’s magnetic field to help them find their way. In the early 2000s, Dr Ursula Munro found that the tiny Tasmanian silvereye navigates magnetically during its annual migrations up the Australian coast.
It seemed that species that took part in long-haul travel were uniquely equipped for this task. Which was why, in 2004, Ursula was dismissive when Dr Raf Freire, then at the University of New England, NSW, suggested testing chickens to see if they too had the knack. Nevertheless, she agreed to collaborate with Raf on a series of experiments using young chickens.
What emerged from that research astonished not only Ursula but also the wider scientific community. “I was gobsmacked,” she says…
(read more: Australian Geographic)
image: Northern gannets migrate thousands of kilometres annually, probably using magnetism as well as the Sun, stars and smell to navigate. Equipped with an eye-based magnetic compass, they may be able to actually see the Earth’s magnetic field. Image Credit: Andreas Trepte/Wikimedia