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JOURNAL ARTICLE

Re-calibration of the magnetic compass in hand-raised European robins (Erithacus rubecula)

Bianca Alert, Andreas Michalik, Nadine Thiele, Michael Bottesch, Henrik Mouritsen
Scientific Reports 2015, 5: 14323
26388258
Migratory birds can use a variety of environmental cues for orientation. A primary calibration between the celestial and magnetic compasses seems to be fundamental prior to a bird's first autumn migration. Releasing hand-raised or rescued young birds back into the wild might therefore be a problem because they might not have established a functional orientation system during their first calendar year. Here, we test whether hand-raised European robins that did not develop any functional compass before or during their first autumn migration could relearn to orient if they were exposed to natural celestial cues during the subsequent winter and spring. When tested in the geomagnetic field without access to celestial cues, these birds could orient in their species-specific spring migratory direction. In contrast, control birds that were deprived of any natural celestial cues throughout remained unable to orient. Our experiments suggest that European robins are still capable of establishing a functional orientation system after their first autumn. Although the external reference remains speculative, most likely, natural celestial cues enabled our birds to calibrate their magnetic compass. Our data suggest that avian compass systems are more flexible than previously believed and have implications for the release of hand-reared migratory birds.

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