Migrating birds are able to get back on course, even when released 1000 km east of their normal migration path. This shows that long-distance migrating birds are capable of true bicoordinate navigation: the ability to make course corrections both in latitude and longitude. The results of experiments, published in Current Biology,1 left the researchers baffled: how do they do it?

Measuring latitude is easy: just judge the height of the sun in the sky. Longitude (east-west orientation), however, is much more challenging because it requires accurate timekeeping. [The difficulties sailors throughout history had in determining longitude has been described in Dava Sobel’s historical novel Longitude.2] Somehow, a team of Russian and German scientists found, birds know the trick. A flock of migrating Eurasian reed warblers was flown 1000 km to the east of their usual take-off point. They found their way to their normal nesting ground by shifting their bearing northwest instead of the usual northeast. “This finding is surprising and presents a new intellectual challenge to bird migration researchers, namely, which cues enable birds to determine their east-west position,” they said….

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