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07-06-2024

Starlings are independent navigators, not copycats

Have you ever pondered how migratory birds figure out their way to warmer climates? Well, a team of researchers from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) and the Swiss Ornithological Institute (Vogelwarte Sempach) have finally cracked a 70-year-old mystery revolving around starlings and the way they navigate.

Starling and their patterns

At the heart of this study is Albert Perdeck, a biologist from the Netherlands who embarked on a mission in the mid-20th century to decipher the migratory patterns of starlings.

He relocated thousands of these birds from the Netherlands to Switzerland and Spain, intent on discovering how young and adult starlings orient themselves on their migratory path.

The results of Perdeck’s research, cloaked in ambiguity for decades, have at last been confirmed and clarified by the present-day team.

Navigating starlings

In their research, the scientists uniquely identified each starling using lightweight metal leg rings, a strategy still utilized today by the Dutch Centre for Avian Migration and Demography, Vogelwarte Sempach and their partners across Europe.

According to Morrison Pot from the NIOO-KNAW, relocated adult starlings altered their migratory path to return to their usual wintering sites.

Meanwhile, the younglings continued in the direction they’d initially started, landing them in unexpected locations in southern France and Spain.

Are starlings copycats?

Perdeck’s findings caused quite a stir among experts specializing in bird migration. The results led to a flurry of theories. A notable theory posited that young starlings, which are inherently social animals, might integrate into a group of local starlings.

Once part of the flock, they could potentially mimic the migratory behaviors of these experienced birds. If this theory holds water, it could fundamentally alter our comprehension of starling migration.

Specifically, it would imply that starlings acquire their migratory routes by learning from others, rather than possessing an innate knowledge of these paths from birth. This revelation would be significant, as it challenges the long-held assumption that migratory routes are instinctual.

To settle this debate, the team delved into Perdeck’s historical data, comparing the relocated starlings’ migratory patterns with those of local starlings in Switzerland and Spain.

Starlings navigate alone

The reanalysis of Perdeck’s data brought forth a surprising revelation. Rather than being social migrants, starlings are independent navigators.

“Starlings travel independently, and decisions about where to go are not overruled by the migratory behavior of others,” Pot explains.

A recent study further backed this finding by revealing that starlings migrate at night. Logically, how could a bird possibly mimic another’s path in the darkness of the night?

Bigger picture for navigating starlings

You might ask why this debate is essential. Our world is undergoing rapid changes, with climate and land-use leading the charge.

In this backdrop, understanding whether migratory behavior is learned or inherited could help us predict how birds can adapt to these alterations.

Henk van der Jeugd is the head of the Dutch Centre for Avian Migration and Demography. He noted that despite their widespread presence and adaptability to human-influenced landscapes, starlings’ inherited migratory behavior could make them less flexible to fast-paced changes.

This 70-year-old mystery turned revelation is no less than an ode to the intricacies of nature. It reminds us yet again that every creature, no matter how small, carries a world of secrets that is waiting to be uncovered.

Future frontiers

With the mystery of how starlings navigate largely unraveled, the focus now shifts to the future research possibilities that this revelation opens.

One of the pressing questions is how starlings might adjust their migratory paths in response to ongoing climate change. Researchers aim to investigate if there are specific environmental cues that could influence migratory decisions in this rapidly evolving world.

Additionally, advances in satellite tracking technology promise more precise data collection methods, enabling scientists to monitor individual birds throughout their migratory journey. Such innovations hold the potential to unveil even more detailed insights into the life of these fascinating birds.

Implications for conservation

The findings about starlings’ migration offer significant implications for bird conservation efforts. Understanding that starlings rely on inherited migratory routes rather than social learning suggests that any disruptions to their traditional habitats could have long-term impacts on their populations.

Conservationists could leverage this knowledge to develop more targeted strategies, such as creating protected migratory corridors and preserving critical habitats along their routes.

Moreover, these insights could be applied to other migratory species facing similar challenges, thereby enhancing the broader efforts within the field of ornithological conservation.

By safeguarding the natural environments that starlings and other migratory birds rely on, we can help ensure their survival amidst an ever-changing global landscape.

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