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Electronic Noise May Disorient Migratory Birds' Compasses

The "noise" from our electronics might not be music to birds' ears, a new study finds.

Jessica Pineda

This video gives you a look at the study that found electromagnetic noise can affect migratory birds.

For years, scientists have wondered if human-caused electromagnetic noise had any affect migratory birds’ magnetic compasses. The latest study on the subjects shows that it just might — at least on European robins.

During the migration season, captive migratory birds will hop, fidget and move in the direction they would be flying in. They do this because they can sense the Earth’s magnetic field with their magnetic compasses; however, researchers at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, found that their birds seemed to have difficulty orienting in the right direction in their cages on the school campus. When they were out in rural areas, the birds had no problems; it was only in an urban area that they were disorientated. It took three years and some creative thinking, but finally the scientists had the idea to shield the birds. When they were shielded, the birds could then orientate and jump in the right direction.


The European robin (Erithacus rubecula), like many small migratory birds, migrates at night.

In their study, Anthropogenic electromagnetic noise disrupts magnetic compass orientation in a migratory bird, published in Nature, the authors wrote, "[The birds] magnetic orientation capabilities reappeared in electrically grounded, aluminum-screened huts, which attenuated electromagnetic noise in the frequency range from 50 kHz to 5MHz by approximately two orders of magnitude. When the grounding was removed or when broadband electromagnetic noise was deliberately generated inside the screened and grounded huts, the birds again lost their magnetic orientation capabilities. The disruptive effect of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields is not confined to a narrow frequency band and birds tested far from sources of electromagnetic noise required no screening to orient with their magnetic compass.”

Not all sources of electromagnetic noise bothered the birds, however. Cell phones and power lines have no effect, but radio signals and other equipment that had a frequency range from 50 kHz to 5MHz. These frequencies are mostly found in urban areas, but it’s not known how much the noise affects the birds.

So what would this "noise” sound like to us? "If you could sense this electromagnetic noise,” said corresponding study author, Herick Mouritsen of the University of Oldenburg in Germany, in the video Lost in Migration, "it will probably be like some sort of rock concert going on all the time.

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Posted: May 19, 2014, 5:45 p.m. PDT

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Electronic Noise May Disorient Migratory Birds' Compasses

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With many birds believed to be able to read and navigate using the earth's magnetic fields it's no wonder that electronic noise confuses them. It's the equivalent of jamming their GPS.
Charles, Orlando, FL
Posted: 5/21/2014 5:41:42 AM
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