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As you look up into the sky and spot flocks of birds flying above on their way to a new seasonal home, you may have asked yourself how they navigate where they want to go. In this article, I answer this question.

Birds navigate by recognising landmarks, the position of the sun, and at night, the position of the constellations. Birds make use of the earth’s magnetic force using an internal compass. A new study shows that a chemical in the eye allows them to see the magnetic lines on the planet.

The idea that birds can travel thousands of miles and navigate to the place of their birth year after year can appear miraculous, especially when we can get lost without Google maps or our satnav. Bird navigation and migration each year is a remarkable feat.

So how exactly do birds navigate? Why and when do they do it, and where are they going? Read the article below to discover the answers to these and more questions.

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Bird in sun

How do birds navigate the world?

Millions of birds navigate across the globe annually. They cover thousands of miles, keeping in tight formation and arriving at the same place year after year. They navigate their way to their winter homes and return to their summer home every spring.

The truth is that the bird navigation skills used in migration aren’t 100% understood. However, we do know that birds combine several senses when they migrate. Birds can get positioning information from the sun as it sets and the stars above, and they can recognise landmarks below as they fly past. It is also suspected that smell may play a factor, as homing pigeons make their way back to their starting point.

But the most mysterious skill that birds make use of as they migrate is sensing the magnetic field of the earth.

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Do birds follow the earth’s magnetic force?

Studies show that birds make use of the earth’s magnetic field as they navigate the globe. Using the planet’s magnetism, it is believed that birds make sense of what is essentially an internal compass. The ins and outs of how exactly this compass effect works have been long speculated and debated.

A recent study has suggested that it could be connected to a chemical in birds’ eyes, which allows them to “see” the lines of the magnetic force which cross the earth. Using this information, birds can understand the direction they are heading in and adjust their flight if they are flying off course.

There are other theories about how bird navigation uses magnetic forces to orientate a bird’s positioning successfully, and there will undoubtedly be more to come. So, although we have several strong suggestions and indications about how birds travel, we don’t know for sure yet.

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How do birds navigate at night?

The idea of birds using landmarks and the sun as markers for their journey during the daytime will seem intuitive to most of us. But how do birds navigate at night when all identifiable landmarks have disappeared into the dark, and the sun has hidden below the horizon?

Franz and Eleanore Saver famously discovered in the 1960s that birds look upwards and turn to the stars. Birds become orientated to the night sky while young and can recognise the patterns and positioning of the stars. They can use the North Star and other identifiable constellation patterns for orientation to stay on course during the night hours and remain on their migratory path successfully.

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What makes birds migrate?

Several different changing environmental and seasonal changes can trigger the beginning of bird migration. These changes include a lengthening or shortening of the day, lowering or raising temperatures, fluctuations in the local food supplies and whether the mating season is approaching.

When do birds navigate?

Birds will migrate according to the season. Aside from travelling to return to their breeding areas, a significant reason for birds to travel thousands of miles annually is to ensure they have access to vital food supplies and can enjoy suitable weather all year round.

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What months do birds migrate in the UK?

Each autumn, approximately 50 species will migrate away from the UK to head south and enjoy warmer temperatures during the winter months. Conversely, our lands also welcome the return of many species, such as ducks and swans, who will spend their winters before heading away again during springtime.

Do birds migrate along the same flight paths in Winter and Spring?

Impressively, there is data to show that many migrating birds will adjust their journeys according to the direction they are flying in. If they are making their annual winter migration, they may stop off at different points, which allow them access to essential food and water supplies.

In the summer months, the birds will adjust these points and may even divert their journey path a little to gain access to crucial supplies in a different area.

What are the different types of Bird Migration?

The lengths of bird migrations vary according to species and what they look for when they move location. Here are the distinct types of Bird Migration Patterns.

Non-migrating permanent residents do not switch locations at all. All their vital food and water supplies are present all year round, and they find the temperature is always suitable.

Short Distance Migrations – Some birds don’t travel very far and make comparatively short journeys. For example, if they are found at the top of a mountainside during the summer, they may move to a lower elevation for warmth during the winter months.

Medium Distance Migrations – Some species will only need to travel a few hundred miles before they reach their annual location where food supplies are plentiful, and the temperature is significantly improved.

Long Distance Migrations – These species will travel thousands of miles each year, moving back and forth from breeding spots.

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As you have read above, the secrets of bird navigation have not all been unlocked as of yet. But we have a good idea of how, why, and when birds navigate their way across the globe each year. Studies and research are constantly ongoing in this fascinating field, and new theories and answers will continue to be announced. In the meantime, when you next spot a migrating flock travelling across the sky, you should have a clearer idea of the magnificent natural phenomenon you are witnessing.