Testing the role of sensory systems in the migratory heading of a songbird

R A Holland, K Thorup, A Gagliardo, I A Bisson, E Knecht, D Mizrahi, M Wikelski
Journal of Experimental Biology 2009, 212: 4065-71
The identification of the sensory cues and mechanisms by which migratory birds are able to reach the same breeding and wintering grounds year after year has eluded biologists despite more than 50 years of intensive study. While a number of environmental cues have been proposed to play a role in the navigation of birds, arguments still persist about which cues are essential for the experience based navigation shown by adult migrants. To date, few studies have tested the sensory basis of navigational cues used during actual migration in the wild: mainly laboratory based studies or homing during the non-migratory season have been used to investigate this behaviour. Here we tested the role of olfactory and magnetic cues in the migration of the catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) by radio tracking the migration of birds with sensory manipulations during their actual migratory flights. Our data suggest that adult birds treated with zinc sulphate to produce anosmia were unable to show the same orientation as control adults, and instead reverted to a direction similar to that shown by juveniles making their first migration. The magnetic manipulation had no effect on the orientation of either adults or juveniles. These results allow us to propose that the olfactory sense may play a role in experience based migration in adult catbirds. While the olfactory sense has been shown to play a role in the homing of pigeons and other birds, this is the first time it has been implicated in migratory orientation.

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