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Understanding the migratory orientation program of birds: extending laboratory studies to study free-flying migrants in a natural setting

Kasper Thorup, Richard A Holland, Anders P T√łttrup, Martin Wikelski
Integrative and Comparative Biology 2010, 50 (3): 315-22
21558206
For many years, orientation in migratory birds has primarily been studied in the laboratory. Although a laboratory-based setting enables greater control over environmental cues, the laboratory-based findings must be confirmed in the wild in free-flying birds to be able to fully understand how birds orient during migration. Despite the difficulties associated with following free-flying birds over long distances, a number of possibilities currently exist for tracking the long distance, sometimes even globe-spanning, journeys undertaken by migrating birds. Birds fitted with radio transmitters can either be located from the ground or from aircraft (conventional tracking), or from space. Alternatively, positional information obtained by onboard equipment (e.g., GPS units) can be transmitted to receivers in space. Use of these tracking methods has provided a wealth of information on migratory behaviors that are otherwise very difficult to study. Here, we focus on the progress in understanding certain components of the migration-orientation system. Comparably exciting results can be expected in the future from tracking free-flying migrants in the wild. Use of orientation cues has been studied in migrating raptors (satellite telemetry) and thrushes (conventional telemetry), highlighting that findings in the natural setting may not always be as expected on the basis of cage-experiments. Furthermore, field tracking methods combined with experimental approaches have finally allowed for an extension of the paradigmatic displacement experiments performed by Perdeck in 1958 on the short-distance, social migrant, the starling, to long-distance migrating storks and long-distance, non-socially migrating passerines. Results from these studies provide fundamental insights into the nature of the migratory orientation system that enables experienced birds to navigate and guide inexperienced, young birds to their species-specific winter grounds.

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