How do migrating birds know where to go? New research suggests “spooky action at a distance” might be involved.

SeekerPublished: July 10, 2018
Published: July 10, 2018

Half of all bird species migrate to find food as the seasons turn cold. The exact pathway and location changes between species, but they all follow a more-or-less north-south pattern. Incredibly, even for those that hunt on land, birds will take the most direct route, even flying over big bodies of water to conserve energy. But how do these birds know where to go?

New evidence from two separate studies — one looking at zebra finches and the other European robins — found some migrating birds have proteins in their eyes that give them a sort of “sixth sense” allowing them to detect the Earth’s magnetic field.

In both species, the researchers studied the proteins Cry1, Cry2 and Cry4, three proteins called cryptochromes that are associated with their bodies’ internal circadian clock.They found that Cry1 and Cry2 levels rise and fall in regular cycles during the day, but the level of Cry4 is constant. The simplest explanation is that birds need to produce this protein all the time, for some reason.

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