Blue Birds Follow the Stars.

Before the creation of Google maps or even the modern day wonder of GPS, humans got around using the stars as their guide.  Ancient astronomers and navigators calculated their positions using positions of the sun, certain star patterns and specialized mathematical instruments as a point of reference for travel.  However, humans are not the only ones to use such knowledge.

Photo of an indigo bunting by Chad Horwedel.

Many species of migratory birds use the stars in the night sky to navigate.  Apparently, the north to south orientation and rotation pattern of the stars is learned from an early age.  Birds that have not learned this have trouble navigating when flying.  This was discovered in the late 1960s by Cornell scientist Stephen Emlen.  During Emlen’s experiments, he raised indigo buntings inside of a closed planetarium and controlled their exposure to daylight and the nighttime sky.  His research determined that the Big Dipper and several other constellations approximately 35 degrees around the North Star (also known as “Polaris“) were the most important for this species of bird.  Nighttime migratory birds naturally orient themselves while flying according to the position of certain constellations.  Birds that migrate during the day use the sun in the same manner.

Photo of the Big Dipper by fmmr.

The stars look unchanging and completely static to the naked eye, but in reality they are constantly moving just like the Earth.  It even takes a special camera for us to see the stars in motion (see the photo to the left).   We can feel the physical effects like night and day, but we can’t tell what’s happening in the sky.  Birds are able to detect such subtle differences in the sky because of their keen vision, heightened light sensors in their brain, and several other factors.  Migratory birds follow the movements of the stars to get from point a to point b.  Think of it as a sort of visual based internal GPS.

So if technology absolutely failed and you become lost in your car in the middle of nowhere, make like a bird and look up –literally.  You may not be able to fly yourself all the way back home, but at least you can figure out where you are and what to do from there.  From way back in ancient times to the present day, the stars are and always will be important for humans and the like for helping us find our way.


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