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50 years ago, scientists wondered how birds find their way home

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A gray, white and orange European robin flies to a tree branch

A world concealed from man but known to birds Science News, April 13, 1974

What subtle sensory cues enable a bird to n­avigate … with spectacular accuracy? [Researchers] have found that birds can sense small changes in air pressure … and can “see” polarized light …. Meanwhile, biologists at the State U­niversity of New York at Stony Brook have found that by attaching a pair of small coils around the heads of homing pigeons and altering an applied magnetic field, they could change the orientation of the birds’ flight.


Birds appear to navigate using a host of sensory cues — from looking at the position of the sun, stars and landmarks to smelling the air and even detecting Earth’s magnetic field (SN: 7/3/15). Scientists are still unraveling the details of birds’ magnetic sense. Iron-rich cells within the beak have long been suspected to function as internal compasses (SN: 4/3/18). But recent studies have suggested that proteins in the retina called cryptochromes allow birds to “see” Earth’s magnetic field (SN: 6/27/16). In lab tests, cryptochromes from migratory robins were especially responsive to magnetic fields (SN: 6/28/21).

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor’s degrees in physics and English, and a master’s in science writing.

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