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Skylight Polarization Patterns and the Orientation of Migratory Birds


Patterns of polarized light present in the clear dusk sky provide directional information relevant to the orientation behaviour of migratory birds. Experiments performed with white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) and American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea), North American night migrants, examined migratory orientation between the time of sunset and the first appearance of stars under several manipulations of skylight polarization patterns. Under clear skies, birds tested in Emlen funnel orientation cages oriented their hopping basically parallel to the E-vector of polarized light, with a bias towards the brightest part of the sky (sunset direction). Under solid, thick overcast conditions (no polarized light from the natural sky), birds showed axially bimodal hopping orientation parallel to an imposed E-vector. When birds were tested in cages covered with depolarizing material under a clear sky, their hopping orientation was seasonally appropriate and indistinguishable from controls viewing an unaltered clear sky. Skylight polarization patterns are not necessary for the occurrence of migratory orientation, but birds respond strongly to manipulations of the E-vector direction. The results reported here support the hypothesis that the relevant stimulus is the E-vector orientation rather than other parameters of skylight, e.g. intensity or colour patterns, degree of polarization. It appears that these night migrants are using skylight polarization at dusk as one of a set of multiple compass capabilities. Because of the necessarily artificial nature of the polarized light stimuli used in the experimental manipulations, it has not been possible to establish the relationship between this orientation cue and other known mechanisms (magnetic, sun and star compasses).