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Migratory Birds Are the Original Inventors of GPS Systems and Heads Up Displays

Updated on March 20, 2013
The Birds Are Headin' Home!
The Birds Are Headin' Home! | Source
Ruby Throated Hummingbirds fly all the way from Central and South America, and Mexico--Amazing!
Ruby Throated Hummingbirds fly all the way from Central and South America, and Mexico--Amazing! | Source
Male Rosebreasted Grosbeak flies a long way to get here.  All the way from South America and the Caribbean.  I'm always impressed with their beauty.
Male Rosebreasted Grosbeak flies a long way to get here. All the way from South America and the Caribbean. I'm always impressed with their beauty. | Source

My Birds Are Coming Home Soon!

Spring is a wonderful time when the Earth begins to yawn and stretch. She turns over and hits the snooze button several times before getting up, and that's why March is such a crazy month here in the Northeast! One day it feels like spring has arrived, the next day we have 3" of snow covering the crocus. Soon, though, she will decide it is time to begin her morning. And that's when we'll start to see our birds arriving from their southerly homes.

I know they have flown thousands of miles to come stay with me for the summer. So I make sure my bird feeders are well stocked. They'll be hungry and tired, and searching for a meal is the last thing they need to do after that arduous journey.

Noting the date of each bird species' arrival helps me to determine when bird houses should be cleaned and in place ahead of time for this year's new generation. You can find birding festivals in your area, which are held at peak migration times. It's a fun family outing to attend a migration event. Make sure you bring your binoculars and or camera. You might be pleasantly surprised to see birds you've never observed before!



Geese fly in a 'V' formation to save energy and speed their journey.
Geese fly in a 'V' formation to save energy and speed their journey. | Source

Completing Their Journey Takes Strategy

Birds fly high up in the atmosphere where there are no obstacles to distract them or slow them down; the air is thinner helping them to fly faster using less energy. They take advantage of updrafts and fly in the wake of another bird's air stream, much like race cars use ‘drafting’ off another car to increase their speed. This strategy allows birds to use less effort so they can coast at high speeds and actually rest while flying.


That's why geese take turns at the head of the 'v' formation; the leader does all the work for the flock that follows. After that bird becomes tired another takes over. In this way they can all work together, which uses up the least energy while propelling them all forward at a much faster rate than if they were traveling singly.

Bird Migration Across Chicagoland

North American Bird Migration Flyways.
North American Bird Migration Flyways. | Source

How do birds find their way?

Birds use all their senses to navigate. Having a road map, or more accurately a terrain map in their heads, they take visual cues from the well-traveled migration routes established over time. Perhaps they followed in their parents' air stream when they were young. That memory is still ingrained in their brain, along with any smells and or sounds associated with the migration route.

Virtual Display Map.
Virtual Display Map. | Source
Bar magnet and iron filings replicate magnetic fields emanating from the Earth.
Bar magnet and iron filings replicate magnetic fields emanating from the Earth. | Source

So What Are These Built-in Bird GPS Systems and Heads Up Displays?

The latest findings indicate birds use not only the sun, moon and stars to navigate just as ancient mariners, but they have what corresponds to a navigational map that uses Earth's magnetic fields.
It seems that the eye and beak of a bird hold the secret to this navigational map. Their retinas contain pigment molecules, which when stimulated by light of a certain wavelength trigger a magnetic navigational mechanism. This generates a visual 'display' which is superimposed on their visual field. Birds can then use this to determine their direction based on that magnetic information system. It is in effect their own magnetic compass. This is not to be confused with our well-known compasses, which rely on polar magnetic fields. They can fluctuate often and therefore would not work well for birds' navigational purposes.
But there is still another magnetic mechanism that is motivated in response to the behavior of iron oxide, also known as magnetite, which can be found in the outside layer of a bird's beak.

According to Birdwatchingdaily.com, April 2012 issue, this substance helps them to orient themselves depending upon the strength or weakness of the magnetic fields generated by the Earth. When the intensity of the magnetic field changes, the magnetite moves, sending an impulse to a large facial nerve. This impulse is sent on to the brain stem where certain cells process the magnetic map information. The theory is that a bird uses this information to create and remember a 3D version of the space in which it lives and moves. Sounds like science fiction, but birds are amazing creatures we have yet to truly understand.

Homing Pigeon
Homing Pigeon | Source

Scientists have long wanted to unlock this secret world of birds' ability to return to virtually the same spot every year after traveling thousands of miles. Homing pigeons are the most famous examples. Even when released in an area where they've never been before, they can still find their way back to their own dovecote. Now we are finally beginning to understand at least some of birds' internal GPS (global positioning secrets)!

Test Your Knowledge of Bird Migration!

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Ovenbirds return northward from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America.
Ovenbirds return northward from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America. | Source

What Birds Migrate to Your Area?

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    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Writer Fox, that is an invitation that I would gladly accept. Thank you for letting me know about the bird observatory in Jerusalem. What a vacation that would be!

      ;) Pearl

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      5 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      So come to Israel in the springtime (or autumn). Just search on Google and find the many spots in Israel where the birds feed. Also, visit the bird observatory in Jerusalem. Israel sits at the juncture of three continents and is filled with food and water (milk and honey, and all) and the birds are welcomed as a major, international tourist attraction.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Writer Fox, Wow! That would be a dream come true, to witness so many migrating birds each year. It is truly a miracle that these little power houses have evolved such navigational devices! I am so glad you stopped by; I loved reading your comment.

      Thanks and have a wonderful day ;) Pearl

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      5 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      This is one of the miracles of our world. Where I live, over 500 million migrating birds visit every year. It's a site to see!

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thank you Deb! I have to agree with you. Scientists are cautious in their claims, but I know in my heart of hearts that our bird friends have amazing secrets as yet undiscovered by the scientific community. I'm convinced that you are correct--this is a way of life and not just a theory! I am very pleased you enjoyed this article. Thanks so much for the votes and for your continued support in my efforts on behalf of the birds.

      Connie

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Connie, this is more than a theory, it is a way of life. That's why we can rely on birds so much for weather prediction. Awesome and up, for your presentation was well done, with a good deal of critical info contained within.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thank you so much dear Eddy! I am so looking forward to spring and warmer temperatures. So writing this helped put me in mind of that. Today it is snowing yet again, so I'm glad that I have bird houses up and in place for any returning visitors. I always love your visits and your supportive comments, dear friend!

      ;) Pearl

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 

      5 years ago from Wales

      As always Pearl my dear friend another gem on nature's wonders.

      Voted up and shared all over.

      Enjoy your day.

      Eddy.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Billy, they are indeed! Every time I learn something new about birds, I am totally amazed at their abilities. I didn't realize that you taught science. You wear many hats, don't you! LOL

      I'm always pleased to 'see you' my friend. Thanks for stopping by. Your visits and fun-to-read comments are much appreciated!

      Pearl

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      They really are remarkable, aren't they? I follow their migration progress on a website I found when I was teaching science, and the kids used to love to follow them on a map, and they would marvel at their progress. Nature is unbelievable, Pearl! Loved this hub!

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