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Cool Bird Tricks — The Longitude Problem, High-Flying Ducks, and More


Intelligent design is evident everywhere in the living world. Here are examples, newly published, involving birds.

Solving the Longitude Problem

It took mariners centuries to solve the longitude problem. Latitude can be determined relatively easily by the angle of the sun and stars, but figuring out east-west distances on a rotating sphere is much more difficult, requiring precision timing. Sailors who lost sight of land could easily become lost at sea. Novelist Dava Sobel wrote a whole book, Longitude, retelling how 18th-century clockmaker John Harrison took forty years in solving “the greatest scientific problem of his time,” bucking the scientific consensus to build a clock that could work on a ship. Too bad he didn’t learn a trick from the birds.

In Current Biology, Chemetsov et al. report that “Migratory Eurasian Reed Warblers Can Use Magnetic Declination to Solve the Longitude Problem.” Even without a time-difference clock sense, these birds have another method: the magnetic field. Because each field line on the earth has a particular intensity and angle (inclination or declination), this provides a fixed coordinate system that animals with the right equipment can utilize, even though these values are not always at right angles. That birds somehow solved the longitude problem was known. Now, the method comes into focus:

We suggest that experienced adult Eurasian reed warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) can use magnetic declination to solve the longitude problem at least under some circumstances under clear skies. Experienced migrants tested during autumn migration in Rybachy, Russia, were exposed to an 8.5° change in declination while all other cues remained unchanged. This corresponds to a virtual magnetic displacement to Scotland if and only if magnetic declination is a part of their map. The adult migrants responded by changing their heading by 151° from WSW to ESE, consistent with compensation for the virtual magnetic displacement. Juvenile migrants that had not yet established a navigational map also oriented WSW at the capture site but became randomly oriented when the magnetic declination was shifted 8.5°. In combination with latitudinal cues, which birds are known to detect and use, magnetic declination could provide the mostly east-west component for a true bi-coordinate navigation system under clear skies for experienced migratory birds in some areas of the globe. [Emphasis added.]

Maybe birds learned this trick from sea turtles, which also use the magnetic field in this way, as the film Living Waters illustrates. But wait; birds and turtles are not evolutionarily related. Could this be another incredible example of “convergent evolution”?

Since all other potential magnetic map parameters (inclination and intensity) and all olfactory and visual cues were kept constant, and since magnetic declination can only be determined by comparing magnetic and celestial compass information, a part of the reed warblers’ map system seems to rely on compass information at least under some circumstances. Consequently, the traditional strict separation between map and compass information needs to be reconsidered on the sensory mechanistic level. Our results also mean that the angular accuracy of both the birds’ magnetic and celestial compasses must be very good (< 1°). This suggestion is supported by experimental and theoretical evidence. Furthermore, declination can only provide map information when celestial compass information is available and thus should not work under complete overcast or deep in the ocean. Since some animals, such as sea turtles, can use their magnetic map in the absence of celestial cues, magnetic declination is certainly not the single universal solution for determining longitudes used by all animals in all locations. For animals that respond accurately to virtual magnetic displacements without a view of the sky, another magnetic parameter has to be available to determine longitude when celestial cues are unavailable.

Sea turtles must have another source of information, and so do the warblers on cloudy days; in fact, their navigational senses are probably working in concert rather than separately. In conclusion, the authors say:

Nevertheless, we predict that detection of magnetic declination is an important part of the map enabling experienced Eurasian reed warblers and probably other long-distance migrants to perform true navigation. Magnetic declination in combination with magnetic inclination and/or total magnetic intensity and/or celestial latitudinal cues has the advantage that they provide a bicoordinate grid useful for successful true navigation on some parts of the Earth, thereby reducing the number blind zones compared to if only magnetic inclination and total magnetic intensity are used.

High-Flying Ducks

Would you be startled at a duck quacking outside the window of your airplane? reported that ruddy shelducks, when migrating past the Himalayas, can fly as high as 6,800 meters (22,000 feet). That’s 77 percent the height of Mt. Everest and over half the altitude of a passenger jet at cruising altitude. “This is the first evidence of extreme high-altitude flight in a duck,” said lead researcher Nicole Parr of the University of Exeter. The bar-headed goose may fly higher, but the researchers may not have observed the highest-flying ducks yet.

At only 4,000 meters, oxygen levels drop to half of sea level values. How do the ducks survive the cold and low oxygen? Whatever the answer, evolution comes up empty. Parr says:

This species has probably evolved a range of adaptations to be able to cope with flying so high, where oxygen levels are half those at sea level. We don’t yet know the nature of these adaptations.

Clever Cockatoos

Crows and cockatoos seem locked in a battle for the coveted title of most intelligent bird. New Caledonian crows are known to bend pieces of wire into hooks in order to fish items out of holes. Now, cockatoos seem to have bested them by figuring out ways to bend pipe cleaners into hooks to retrieve a reward or unbend them into straight lines as the experimental setup requires.

Nothing in these parrots’ environment requires working out this kind of problem. The experiments showed variation in the way individual birds solved the challenges, suggesting that they are not relying on instincts, but actually figuring out solutions in real time. “By now brain and behavioral research has shown that some birds such as corvids and parrots seem to possess complex cognition at similar levels as higher primates and show similar neuron counts in the respective brain regions,” says. Conclusion: humans must have evolved from parrots. Is it ethical to keep our ancestors in parakeet cages?

Starling Geometry

For the last example, we return to the aerobatic dances of starlings that the film Flight: The Genius of Birds so wondrously illustrated. Do the birds understand advanced math? Researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s Kavli Center for Theoretical Physics are proposing a new kind of mathematical model for this astonishing instance of coordinated behavior. They’re applying the geometry of curved surfaces. News from UCSB explains:

Generalizing the standard model of flocking motion to the curved surface of a sphere rather than the usual linear plane or flat three-dimensional space, Bowick’s team found that instead of spreading out uniformly over the whole sphere, arrowlike agents spontaneously order into circular bands centered on the equator. The team’s findings appear in the journal Physical Review X.

While this opens up new possibilities for models, it certainly cannot account for all the twists, turns and constantly changing shapes of starling murmurations. The researchers have to admit,

Just the fact that these systems flock is pretty remarkable because they dynamically generate motion,” said Shankar, a doctoral student in the soft matter program in Syracuse University’s physics department. “But they are far richer systems than we expected because they also generate these ‘topologically protected’ sound modes.”


We can take any class of animals and find similar high-tech systems working flawlessly. We don’t see half-wings and transitional forms, but completed technologies working at a very high level. Whenever we see that kind of performance in technologies we observed coming into being, we know they were produced by intelligent causes. Intelligent design seeks to consistently apply that principle uniformly in science.

Photo: A ruddy shelduck in (low altitude) flight, by Sayanti Sikder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.