back to article Birds can feel Earth's magnetic fields? Yeah, that might fly. Bioboffins find vital sense proteins

Birds can fly, sing, and, er, detect the Earth’s magnetic field behind their eyes, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Eggheads have long suggested birds use some sort of internal compass to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, as they navigate their way on long migrations, often …

  1. Paratrooping Parrot
    Boffin

    How would it feel?

    Would they feel a drag towards a certain direction? Do their eyes bulge towards magnetic north?

  2. Muscleguy Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    The same way some of us humans have a good sense of direction. I probably use light direction/polarisation. I did have some trouble adapting moving from NZ to the UK. I'm heading back for a couple of weeks so I will see how it feels, though I'll generally be in places I know well with easily visible landmarks like hills and mountains rather than a concrete jungle.

  3. ThatOne Bronze badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    > some of us humans have a good sense of direction

    Yes, but the thing is, all birds have it, not only some fortunate ones.

    On the other hand you might say that this is most likely a result of ruthless natural selection, those birds which aren't good at navigating getting lost and removing themselves from the gene pool.

    .

    BTW, somebody else finds it cute that someone called "Finch-Rodriguez" studied finches? Birds of a feather and all that?...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: How would it feel?

    "BTW, somebody else finds it cute that someone called "Finch-Rodriguez" studied finches? Birds of a feather and all that?..."

    I suspect that someone called Rodriguez did some serious, post doctoral level Finch studying at some point.

  5. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Coat

    Re: How would it feel?

    "Yes, but the thing is, all birds have it, not only some fortunate ones."

    You know how you can make a magnet by pointing a length of metal, eg a screwdriver in line with the earths magnetic field and striking it? That was a hell of a "strike" 65 million years ago when birds were still dinosaurs.

    Yes, that's the one, the one with the tinfoil lining.

  6. Richard 81

    Re: How would it feel?

    It could be like the way our inner ear tells us which way is up; you do feel a sort of pull but it's barely perceptible. Since no human has this sense, it's difficult know how it would feel.

  7. Roland6 Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    >You know how you can make a magnet by pointing a length of metal, eg a screwdriver in line with the earths magnetic field and striking it?

    Decades back! :) some bright spark had the idea that your bed's orientation with respect to the earth's magnetic field was a factor, claiming that those who slept in a north-south orientation generally had a better sense of direction than those who slept in an east-west orientation. Don't know if any research was done on this - mythbusters or real science.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: the idea that your bed's orientation with respect to the earth's magnetic field

    ... is largely determined by the orientation of your bedroom wrt the earth's magnetic field.

    In my case there is only one sane orientation, and I suppose at best there might be four, unless you have an exotically shaped (or pleasingly large) one allowing wider choice.

  9. Mike 16 Bronze badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    Can't speak of humans, but back in the last millennium I read about a study of crawfish (under whatever name is locally used. Freshwater mini-lobsters). They apparently use externally acquired grains of sand in the equivalent of our inner-ear balance organs. Scientists with a sense of humor, or possibly just a mean streak, placed some in a tank with "sand" containing iron filings or some such. After an interval to allow the subjects to refresh their "sand", the boffins applied various magnetic fields and took notes on the subjects' attempts to right themselves.

  10. Mycho Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    It would probably feel like when you're walking down a corridor and you know all the heat is coming from the left. There's no drag, just the thermoreceptors in your skin let you know it's that side.

  11. DougS Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    Possibly some people are sensitive to polarization of light, but if so it would only work during the day when the sun is shining. If animals could only navigate on sunny days that would be hell for birds in the UK, and nocturnal animals anywhere.

    You don't need to see polarization to be able to navigate during the day, just have a good sense of where the sun is at a given time of day, and have a good sense of time (or have a way of determining it like a watch) It would be pretty easy to rule out polarization by seeing if people who believe themselves to have a good sense of direction lose it when wearing depolarizing goggles.

    If I think about it I have a pretty good idea where the sun should be at a given time and could calculate what direction north is and so forth. I could easily believe that some people do that without being consciously aware of it, and thus have a "naturally good sense of direction".

    I remember reading one article that suggested animals might actually "see" magnetic lines in some sense, overlaying on their vision.

  12. TRT Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    Manchester university have been running a human magneto-orientation study for years. It involved minibussing blindfolded volunteers around Manchester, making use of several roundabouts to disguise direction, then a 20-30 minute drive around. Volunteers wore a headband contains either a magnet or a piece of brass, then had to guess and mark on a clipboard oriented towards the front of the coach which way was north and which way was the university.

    I'm not sure what the results are looking like.

  13. MrT

    Re: How would it feel?

    "BTW, somebody else finds it cute that someone called "Finch-Rodriguez" studied finches? Birds of a feather and all that?..."

    Atticus' parents perhaps dreamed he would have a legal career...? Here's hoping they didn't have to kill any mockingbirds as part of the study.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: How would it feel?

    I can "feel" the direction I'm facing. I always try to align my bed north-south too (not from anything I've read, but from personal experience) - and no, I don't need a compass to do so.

    anon, 'cos you'll think I'm a freak.

  15. find users who cut cat tail

    Re: How would it feel?

    > claiming that those who slept in a north-south orientation generally had a better sense of direction than those who slept in an east-west orientation.

    Interesting, as I've been always (well, when there was a choice) sleeping in east-west oriented beds. Not west-east, mind you. That would be just wrong and I might rotate 180 degrees during the night. I have a pretty good sense of direction and tend to confuse people by diving directions using NSEW even inside buildings -- but the bed orientation thing may have more to do with some light/darkness cycle. Who knows. I am willing to participate in a rigorous scientific study, especially if it involves me sleeping a lot without disturbance...

  16. harmjschoonhoven
    Coat

    @DougS: People are sensitive to polarization of light

    People with normal vision can see the Haidinger figures. Even the degree of polarization of the blue sky 90° from the Sun is enough to see it, if you know what to look for.

    Re orientation in general:

    Alice asked the Cheshire Cat "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That dependes a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. "I don't much care where --" said Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat. "--so long as I get somewhere," Alice added. "Oh, you 're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

  17. The Oncoming Scorn
    Black Helicopters

    Re: How would it feel?

    I get that "North" feel, although my normally excellent sense of direction in the UK, took a long time to re-orientate itself when I first moved to Canada.

    I'm always drawn to maps as well & when on roads I don't know, but in a area I might vaguely know from the map studies I can invariably tell where I am going to rejoin the road\find myself in a familiar location.

    Always had a weird "deja vu" sense of knowing if I'm going to go into a building at some point in my distant future.

    The best example is the office tower attached to Plymouth railway station, when dropping a friend there in 1983/4 & feeling that I would be in that building, which I turned out to do in 2001 refreshing computers for the National Rail Enquiries Service.

    Icon because Montana is due south of me.

  18. Rustbucket

    Re: @DougS: People are sensitive to polarization of light

    "People with normal vision can see the Haidinger figures. Even the degree of polarization of the blue sky 90° from the Sun is enough to see it, if you know what to look for."

    Try this instead: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haidinger%27s_brush

  19. This post has been deleted by its author

  20. Nifty

    Re: How would it feel?

    Is this about lay lines?

  21. herman Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    W0t? "Finch-Rodriguez" is human? I thought he is very smart for a bird brain...

  22. herman Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    If you can sense polarization, then you can sense here the sun is even when the sun is below the horizon. This is the origin of the "philosopher's stone" (feldspar) used to navigate in northern latitudes.

  23. x 7 Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    presumably the wiring in the bus would dampen any magnetic field?

  24. TRT Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    I don't know the details of that. When I took part I was 14 and on a school trip. They checked the bus orientation with a magnetic compass, I recall, so it couldn't have been a total wipeout. The top bit of the bus was probably mostly made of oak or ash and melamine in those days anyway!

  25. 's water music Silver badge
    Coat

    Re: How would it feel?

    You know how you can make a magnet by pointing a length of metal, eg a screwdriver in line with the earths magnetic field and striking it? That was a hell of a "strike" 65 million years ago when birds were still dinosaurs.

    So you are saying that this is some sort of racial memory of being successed by a meteor when dinosaurs roamed the earth? I would say that sounds legit except surely the dinos/birds would have had to be dynamised by extreme dilution. And Requel welch would be able to sense magnets too. How does that fucking work? :-)

  26. x 7 Silver badge

    Re: How would it feel?

    " And Requel welch would be able to sense magnets too. How does that fucking work? :-)"

    that bikini was held together by magnetic meteor fragments

  27. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
    Headmaster

    Re: How would it feel?

    Possibly some people are sensitive to polarization of light, but if so it would only work during the day when the sun is shining.

    Sunlight is not the only natural light that is polarized. Moonlight (technically reflected sunlight) and starlight are available at night and are polarized, too. Do a search for the greater mouse-eared bat's use of polarized light for navigation for an example.

  28. Jamie Jones Silver badge
    Happy

    Re: How would it feel?

    And Requel welch would be able to sense magnets too. How does that fucking work? :-)

    I got the reference :-)

    I asked ICP, and apparently, no-one knows! [NSFW maybe]

  29. StephenH

    Re: How would it feel?

    I can walk out of a building or a series of underground shopping malls and correctly know which direction it is back to my hotel or where I parked the car. When I'm in the northern hemisphere I still feel the same confidence but am usually 180 degrees out.

    There is also 1 part of Sydney (Marrickville) where I consistently lose my sense of direction and have done so for 40 years. Wonder if there is a magnetic anomaly there.

  30. Dagg

    Re: How would it feel?

    I did have some trouble adapting moving from NZ to the UK.

    Same here, strange thing was east west was ok, but north south swapped.

  31. frank ly Silver badge

    re. "... and even mole rats."

    You sound surprised. Mole rats live underground and they need a good sense of direction because there's nothing more embarrassing than going around in a circle when you're digging a long tunnel.

  32. Richard Parkin

    Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

    Mole rats are not easily embarrassed - see Naked Mole Rats :-)

  33. Michael Thibault Bronze badge

    Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

    "... there's nothing more embarrassing than going around in a circle when you're digging a long tunnel"

    Unless you're building CERN, of course.

    I'll just leave this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1STIAm1uZ8g 8:30 and onward, ho!

  34. MrT

    Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

    CERN's circle in the ground - Alpinekat's LHC Rap

  35. Symon Silver badge
    WTF?

    Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

    Naked Mole Rats.

    Weird things. The only mammalian thermoconformer. No pain receptors in its skin. Can survive in very low oxygen environments. And has remarkable resistance to cancer. They can live for over 30 years.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_mole-rat

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the 1950s it was not uncommon to attribute a "direction bump" to someone. They seemed to be able to navigate previously unknown streets without a map.

    It wasn't infallible though. Other cues might have been in play. My father got us lost in a seaside town that did not have the conventional layout of a post-railway boom town like Blackpool. He also missed a 90 degree turn off a country lane that stranded us in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday.

    In South Africa my English colleagues remarked on how often they were 180 degrees out in their sense of direction. That suggests that sun orientation was possibly a cue when they already knew the north-south layout from a street map.

  37. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    "In South Africa my English colleagues remarked on how often they were 180 degrees out in their sense of direction. That suggests that sun orientation was possibly a cue when they already knew the north-south layout from a street map."

    I agree. I remember when I first went out "in the field" as a young tech. Living on the East coast, driving on the West coast caused me to head North instead of South or vice versa on a few occasions when the sea was in view. Lots of subconscious clues, subtle and not so subtle help one to orient oneself, even in an unfamiliar area, especially if you've seen a map at some point or have at least a general idea of the local geography, much of which can suddenly cause you to get lost if those clues are misleading, such as switching hemispheres or worse, being a thick fog. I once drove about 5 miles east in fog, convinced I was going west until I saw a road sign and had a very disorienting moment!

    I definitely don't have any magnetic sensing ability.

  38. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    The Natural Navigator

    "Starting with a simple question - ‘Which way am I looking?’ - Tristan Gooley blends natural science, myth, folklore and the history of travel to introduce you to the rare and ancient art of finding your way using nature’s own sign-posts, from the feel of a rock to a glance at the moon."

    https://www.naturalnavigator.com/books-and-library/the-natural-navigator

    https://www.naturalnavigator.com/

  39. TRT Silver badge

    Re: The Natural Navigator

    I get totally bolloxed around South Kensington. In any other place in London, I know which way the river is and thence which way is North.

  40. macjules Silver badge

    Re: The Natural Navigator

    Easy one. If you are looking at the often vomit-coloured Lambourghinis in their showroom then you are facing South. If you are walking up towards the museums then you are facing North. If you are being swamped by several thousand French children then it is likely that you are walking West.

    FTFY

  41. TRT Silver badge

    Re: The Natural Navigator

    You see? I just pictured that and got it completely arse about tit.

  42. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Joke

    Re: The Natural Navigator

    @macjules, TRT

    The Natural London Navigator

    There's an idea for a book if anyone is interested!

    Or even a Vulture publication to go alongside "A Geek's Guide to Britain"

  43. Korev Silver badge
    Joke

    Strange, I thought they just winged it

  44. macjules Silver badge

    Cheep shot.

  45. AndrueC Silver badge
    Joke

    Cheep shot

    Yes, but there's no need to get in a flap about it.

  46. Korev Silver badge
    Coat

    Wren they use this to help Robin houses, I think we should Thrush in to stop it...

  47. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    "Cheep shot."

    Maybe you should tweet about your feelings?

  48. Crisp Silver badge

    I hear ornithologists are all a twitter about this.

    It's certainly a feather in Atticus Pinzón-Rodríguez's cap.

  49. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    winging it

    Alright, alright, I don't want to hear another peep out of you!

  50. TRT Silver badge

    Re: winging it

    They use navigation beakons.

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