Polarized Light Cues Underlie Compass Calibration in Migratory Songbirds

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Abstract

Migratory songbirds use the geomagnetic field, stars, the Sun, and polarized light patterns to determine their migratory direction. To prevent navigational errors, it is necessary to calibrate all of these compass systems to a common reference. We show that migratory Savannah sparrows use polarized light cues from the region of sky near the horizon to recalibrate the magnetic compass at both sunrise and sunset. We suggest that skylight polarization patterns are used to derive an absolute (i.e., geographic) directional system that provides the primary calibration reference for all of the compasses of migratory songbirds.

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