For a Migrating Bird, The Nose Knows

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Migratory birds rely heavily on their noses for navigation.

In a recent field study involving three groups of songbirds in the wild, researchers found proof that a migratory bird’s sense of smell plays a significant role in their navigational ability – more so than the sun and Earth’s magnetic field. 

To discover this information, ornithologists applied a saline solution to the nasal mucous membranes of eight juvenile and adult catbirds, temporarily affecting their sense of smell. Another group received strong magnetic pulses, influencing their magnetoreception capacity. The control birds remained unaltered. Then, all of the birds were fitted with a radio transmitter and released in a different location in the United States.

The results? The songbirds with a sub-par sense of smell had difficulty getting their bearings and flew a different migratory route than their usual autumn pattern. The two other groups – the control birds and ones that received magnetic pulses – correctly identified their location, recalled flight information and navigated their way home on their most frequently used migratory route.

Ornithologists have also learned that adult migratory birds are able to remember scents while traveling. And if they fly off course? These remarkable creatures are able to redirect their route and get back on track. Scientists are working to identify what factors enable migratory birds to specifically pinpoint their locations and find previously-used nesting grounds.