What Color Is North?

How birds and other animals travel so far so accurately. /

Second to the right, and straight on till morning” is one of the most famous navigational instructions in English literature. It is also famously nonsensical. “Second” what? “To the right” from where? What happens if I depart in the morning? Even young Wendy recognizes Peter Pan is just winging it with these instructions. Ambiguous and subjective directions may be fine for visiting lands of pure imagination, but in the real world you need concrete and constant references to navigate well.

Peter is not the only one who needs to fly long distance; migratory birds travel thousands of miles twice a year to find adequate food. But they probably aren’t doing so the way we’d think: They may sense magnetic fields. Birds obviously can’t navigate by line of sight, since their destination is beyond the horizon when they begin. In theory, they could just remember the route and pass it down from parent to fledgling. The unique sights, sounds, or smells of different regions could serve as landmarks along the route. Since their destinations are not as narrow as a single building the way ours often are, the route does not need to be demarcated precisely. Still, landmarks and landscapes can change, especially in the era of human development. While some birds have stopped migrating because humans have made it unnecessary, the ones that still do aren’t getting lost just because we put up our parking lots.

Another landmark available to birds is the Earth’s magnetic field. That field is relatively stable and strongly directional, which makes it useful for orienting one’s self. Biologists like Dmitry Kishkinev have modified and disrupted the navigation and migration behaviors of ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 52 / July 7, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from July 07, 2016

    Issue 52: Dreams, animal GPS, and astronaut churches. /

  2. What Dreams Are Really Made Of

    Why we’ve always tried to find transcendent meaning in an ordinary, everynight event. /

  3. Bless Thou the Astronauts

    How the church shaped early lunar exploration. /

  4. A Dream Song (II)

    “The stars are spinning their threads.” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 52: Links to amazing stuff.

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