Many species of birds migrate thousands of kilometers every year. Migration is driven mostly by weather and the availability of food.
In the springtime, birds migrate to temperate regions, where food is plentiful and birds may safely create nests. In autumn, birds migrate to warmer latitudes, following their food sources and more comfortable weather patterns. In the Northern Hemisphere, birds generally fly south for the winter. In the Southern Hemisphere, they generally fly north for the winter.
The flight paths used by birds in their annual migrations are called flyways.
Scientists are not entirely sure how birds navigate their flyways. They seem to have an internal global positioning system (GPS) that allows them to follow the same pattern every year. A young bird imprints on the sun and stars to help orient it. Some researchers think a bird may also recognize landmarks.
Individual organs also contribute to a bird’s remarkable navigational ability. A bird’s eyes interact with its brain in a region called “cluster N”, which probably helps the bird determine which way is north. Tiny amounts of iron in the neurons of a bird’s inner ear also help in this determination.
Most surprisingly, a bird’s beak helps contribute to its navigational ability. The beak helps birds determine their exact position. Some researchers think a bird can smell its way across a flyway. This “olfactory map” would orient a bird to terrain and topography. The trigeminal nerve, which connects a bird’s beak to its brain, may also help a bird assess its exact location. Researchers think the trigeminal nerve may help birds evaluate the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, which is stronger at the poles and weaker at the Equator.
Think about the way a bird’s physiology contributes to its ability to navigate, and see if you can guess the outcome of the experiments in the “Questions” tab.
to evaluate or determine the amount of.
imaginary line around the Earth, another planet, or star running east-west, 0 degrees latitude.
migration route regularly used by birds, bats, or butterflies.
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
Global Positioning System (GPS)
system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.
to acquire a habit or behavior through a learning process that occurs early in the life of a social animal, usually through an association with a parent or role model.
a prominent feature that guides in navigation or marks a site.
distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.
area around and affected by a magnet or charged particle.
to move from one place or activity to another.
to plan and direct the course of a journey.
part of the nervous system that registers sensation and touch.
impulse-conducting cell found in the nervous system. Also called a nerve cell and neurocyte.
having to do with smell or the sense of smell.
group of tissues that perform a specialized task.
to position or find the location of something.
study of activity in living organisms, including physical and chemical processes.
extreme north or south point of the Earth's axis.
topographic features of an area.
study of the shape of the surface features of an area.
state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.
repeating or predictable changes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as winds, precipitation, and temperatures.