Scientists Are Using Magnets to Disorient Birds' Internal GPS

A magnetic coil will send reed warblers on a wild goose chase. 


After years spent trying to confuse birds’ navigation, a group of researchers has finally hacked their internal GPS with a special magnetic coil. Birds may not agree at first, but this is good news for them.

The study published in this month’s Current Biology details how researchers pranked a pack of Eurasian reed warblers by building a special magnetic coil system. The system could manipulate the area’s magnetic field while leaving the rest of the bird’s navigational cues (sun, stars, landmarks, smells) unobscured. This is long-earned satisfaction for the researchers, who failed to throw birds off course by capturing them and pointing them in the wrong direction a few years ago.

“The most amazing part of our finding is that the same birds sitting on the same dune of Courish Spit on the Baltic coast shifted their orientation from their normal migratory direction — northeast — to the northwest after we slightly turned current control knobs on our power supplies,” Queen’s University Belfast researcher Dmitry Kishkinev told Phys. “All the other sensory cues remained the same for the birds.”

The coils have potential to be used for more than playing avian practical jokes. The New York Times reports that 13.7 million birds die in the United States every single day, laid low by pesticides and high tension power lines and wind farm turbines and predators and basically anything that can kill a bird. Maybe someday we could use this breakthrough to give them a nudge in a friendlier direction.

Related Tags