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Earth Science

Electromagnetic Noise Found To Affect Bird Navigation 71

Posted by timothy
from the or-did-you-mean-magnetic-north? dept.
Rambo Tribble (1273454) writes "A 7-year German study has come to a troubling conclusion: the EM noise from human activities is interfering with birds' magnetic 'compass' [paywalled paper, but above-average abstract], and potentially disrupting migratory behavior. While science is unclear how the birds' compasses work, it is theorized it employs the quantum phenomenon of electron spin. As the lead researcher, Prof Henrik Mouritsen, is quoted as saying, 'A very small perturbation of these electron spins would actually prevent the birds from using their magnetic compass.' The BBC has a nice summary article, as well."
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Electromagnetic Noise Found To Affect Bird Navigation

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  • There's a difference between "good enough" and "elegant" when it comes to design.

    Our society is a chaotic blast of all sorts of noise, from physical sound waves, to electromagnetics, to sheer ugliness.

    It doesn't reflect a consistent design philosophy.

    The high number of electromagnetic wave emitters inevitably creates other problems as well. But we're so focused on "good enough" that we ignore this.

    • We really should take it seriously since it is for the birds...
    • Nowadays, there are over six billion humans living on the planet, and that number is only going up from here. EM radiation? Trust me, that's pretty low on the list of ecological disasters looming ahead for humanity. Terra will keep right on spinning without us; but if we're going to die off from overpopulation you can bet we're going to take as many other higher life forms with us as we can.

      So how do we reduce the number of EM wave emitters (number, strength, impact) without causing even more damage to

  • by canadiannomad (1745008) on Thursday May 08, 2014 @10:35AM (#46949723) Homepage

    So if I read this right, while they are in the presence of electromagnetic fields they can't orient themselves via their internal compass, but the moment they leave that field they regain their orientation. So all they have to do is fly in any direction, and they will eventually get oriented. I'm not sure I see how big a problem this is. It would be unusual for them to experience it in nature, but it seems like something they would naturally recover from.
    Are their any studies that tell us that large numbers of migratory birds are flying the wrong direction? (as opposed to saying that they might, if they are constantly in an abnormal electromagnetic field)

    • by mr_mischief (456295) on Thursday May 08, 2014 @10:47AM (#46949843) Journal

      According to the BBC summary they also orient according to the sun and stars. This disrupts one of three systems. In the US, there's some decent evidence that major landmarks like rivers and lakes are used even by birds that are not water birds, too. It's certainly not a huge problem for most migratory birds. Lack of food sources at their traditional migration times may be much more important.

      • According to the BBC summary they also orient according to the sun and stars. This disrupts one of three systems.

        Except the sun and stars are not both visible at the same time. So it disrupts one of two systems effectively. How many birds of you see flying at night anyhow?

        • And at night stars may be not visible thanks to light pollution.

        • by oodaloop (1229816)

          How many birds of you see flying at night anyhow?

          Pretty much none, nighttime being the time when I'm indoors a lot and sleeping. Even when I'm outside, it's DARK. My inability to see birds flying at night should not be an indicator that birds are not flying at night.

        • Many birds fly 18 hours straight. Some species longer.

          Cornell [cornell.edu] has [birdcast.info] some information you may want to read, as do some [houstonaudubon.org] other [audubonmagazine.org] sources [nytimes.com]. Birds fly before sunrise and after sunset, even in complete darkness. Some species fly right through the night during migration.

          • by mmell (832646)
            They even fly on cloudy days (marginal sunlight, nearly no moonlight - no starlight or celestial navigation in any event).
    • by tomhath (637240)
      FTFA:

      birds tested far from sources of electromagnetic noise required no screening to orient with their magnetic compass

      So (as I read it) they might get disoriented when they fly too close to a cell tower, but once clear they're okay.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        From the abstract, I didn't see where the were testing above 5 MHz.
        Cell towers operate at 750-2100MHz most above 1700MHz

    • I think the bigger problem is that the avian electromagnetic sense is tied to their eyesight. So the electromagnetic noise isn't just causing them to fly in the wrong direction, it's interfering with their ability to see. This may cause them to run into buildings, wind turbines, and power lines more often than usual.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Figure it out birds! Or else we'll replace you with lifelike robot birds that don't crap on my car.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Could this explain why birds are frequently found crashing into planes or being sucked into jet engines? The plane's own equipment screwing with their navigation until they fly into it?

    • by Anonymous Coward
      No. Those are the birds who, having been pecked on their entire lives, and misunderstood by the entire flock, have settled into a deep, dark fugue and have decided to end it all rather than giving this unfair universe the satisfaction of screwing them over for one more single fucking day.
    • Many birds see polarised light patterns, a characteristic of water in nature. Very few natural things look like water in polarised light.

      Polished metal does though. Glass too. And many painted surfaces.

      This is why birds keep hitting windows. To their senses, the window looks like a nice pool of water to land in. As do parked cars.

      • I would have thought that millions of years of evolution would have taught birds that vertical water surfaces don't exist.

        • Nor did glass, until recently.

          • I don't buy the "glass mistaken for water" theory.

            Why would a non-aquatic bird try to land in water? And head-first at full speed, at that?

            I think they just don't see the glass and assume it's an open space. Birds avoid glass with a spiderweb pattern that's visible only in UV light.

            • In the case of window collisions, yes - again, glass isn't something they evolved to cope with, so they have no instinct to be aware of invisible obsticles.

              The polarised car thing is more of an issue for insects.

        • by geekoid (135745)

          you mean like water falls?

          • by c4320n (2551122)
            A waterfall is very, very far from a 'vertical water surface'. I doubt it the polarization of the light coming off of a waterfall makes it look any more similar to a pool of water than the colored light coming off of it does (that is to say, not at all).
      • To their senses, the window looks like a nice pool of water to land in. As do parked cars.

        Whoa could this explain why birds specifically poop on cars so much? Maybe they have some kind of instinct to aim their poop at water sources (oddly enough).

        I'll have to see how much bird poop my car attracts when I paint it with plasti-dip which should look different.

        • by cffrost (885375)

          To their senses, the window looks like a nice pool of water to land in. As do parked cars.

          Whoa could this explain why birds specifically poop on cars so much? Maybe they have some kind of instinct to aim their poop at water sources (oddly enough).

          I don't know... Has cognitive bias been eliminated as a possible explanation? Speaking for myself, I tend not to pay much notice when birds shit someplace/on something I haven't paid to clean.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    While science is unclear how the birds' compasses work, it is theorized it employs the quantum phenomenon of electron spin.

    There are actual magnetic materials in the relevant cells, working as a compass. Confusing readers is optional.

    • No reason to get snarky, especially when the original post is correct. There are magnetic materials in birds' eyes. However, they only register when exposed to a magnetic field under certain conditions, as a quantum phenomenon. It is an electron spin transfer that is delayed by the quantum Zeno effect to a timescale where the birds' retina can detect the difference.
      It's not as simple as a compass that points them in the right direction. Birds use some seriously weird quantum tricks to see magnetic fie

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