Homing Pigeons Respond to Time-Compensated Solar Cues Even in Sight of the Loft
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The sun has long been thought to guide bird navigation as the second step in a two-stage process, in which determining position using a map is followed by course setting using a compass, both over unfamiliar and familiar terrain. The animal's endogenous clock time-compensates the solar compass for the sun's apparent movement throughout the day, and this allows predictable deflections in orientation to test for the compass' influence using clock-shift manipulations. To examine the influence of the solar compass during a highly familiar navigational task, 24 clock-shifted homing pigeons were precision-tracked from a release site close to and in sight of their final goal, the colony loft. The resulting trajectories displayed significant partial deflection from the loft direction as predicted by either fast or slow clock-shift treatments. The partial deflection was also found to be stable along the entire trajectory indicating regular updating of orientation via input from the solar compass throughout the final approach flight to the loft. Our results demonstrate that time-compensated solar cues are deeply embedded in the way birds orient during homing flight, are accessed throughout the journey and on a remarkably fine-grained scale, and may be combined effectively simultaneously with direct guidance from familiar landmarks, even when birds are flying towards a directly visible goal.
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