The Loh Down On Science

Confused Birds

What does your clock radio have to do with … bird migrations?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

European robins, like many animals, can sense Earth’s magnetic field.  And they use the field as a signpost of sorts when migrating.  For example, robins always know which way’s north.  Or do they?

Researchers from the University of Oldenburg, Germany, wondered.  They captured wild robins that were about to migrate.  Then they released them in a windowless horse stable out in the country.  Sure enough, the birds kept trying to fly north – even without visual cues to guide them.  They were clearly tapping the magnetic field.  But when the team broadcast electromagnetic signals like those used by A.M. radio?  The birds went every which way, as if unsure where to go.  And every time the team stopped the broadcast?  The birds’ sense of direction returned.

Frequencies produced by various electronics had the same effect.  So in heavily populated areas, our gadgets interfere with birds’ internal compasses. 

And you thought talk radio made your head spin! 

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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