Clock-shift experiments with Savannah sparrows, Passerculus sandwichensis, at high northern latitudes

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Orientation can be difficult for nocturnal bird migrants at high northern latitudes because of the large changes of magnetic declinations, rapid longitudinal time-shifts experienced during a long-distance flight and the invisibility of stars during the polar summer. Both sunset cues as well as geomagnetic cues have been shown to be of great importance in the orientation system of Savannah sparrows, Passerculus sandwichensis. We used clock-shift experiments to investigate whether geomagnetic and sunset cues were used for migratory orientation by wild-caught young Savannah sparrows at high geomagnetic latitudes in Northern Canada. We exposed birds to a 4-h slow clock-shift. expecting a 60degrees clock-wise shift in orientation after the treatment. Under natural clear skies in the local geomagnetic field, the birds responded by showing a significant axial mean orientation directed towards the position of the setting sun in the NW and towards their preferred migratory direction in the SE. After exposure to the clock-shift for 6 days and nights the birds showed a clear response to the treatment and shifted significantly towards NNE. Birds that first oriented towards NW in the experiments before clock-shift tended to shift clock-wise, thus reacted to the clock-shift in the expected way. The reaction of the individual birds that originally oriented towards SE seems to vary. In summary, our birds did not select a constant angle (menotaxis) in relation to the sun's position during the experiments, but presumably were affected by the sun showing phototaxis or followed their magnetic compass. Possible explanations of the unexpected experimental results are discussed.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Biological Sciences
  • Zoology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)394-401
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Publication categoryResearch