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very year millions of birds make heroic journeys guided by Earth's magnetic field. How they detect magnetic fields has puzzled scientists for decades. Today, the Keays lab at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna has added some important pieces to this puzzle.
Remarkably, each cell has just one iron ball, and it is in the same place in every cell. "It's very exciting. We find these iron balls in every bird, whether it's a pigeon or an ostrich" adds Mattias Lauwers who discovered them "but not in humans." It is an astonishing finding, despite decades of research these conspicuous balls of iron had not been discovered.
Young birds can get 'drunk' on fermented berries. But unsteadiness on the feet, a tendency to fall over, and losing the ability to steer is considerably more of a problem when life is normally spent in trees or in the air.
Three tissue samples from the dead birds were sent for toxicological analysis, one of which revealed high levels of pure alcohol (ethanol). Staff at the wildlife rescue centre to which the live bird was sent also reported that it had been unsteady on its feet and appeared "drunk."
The bird had had to place its wings on the ground to steady itself, and had leant against the walls of its enclosure to keep upright, they said. After two days the bird fully recovered and was released back into the wild.
> Wiltschko and Wiltschko, 176 (4030): 62-64
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Science 7 April 1972:
Vol. 176 no. 4030 pp. 62-64
Magnetic Compass of European Robins
1Zoologisches Institut der Universität, D 6 Frankfurt a.M., Siesmayerstrasse 70, Germany
The magnetic compass of European robins does not use the polarity of the magnetic field for detecting the north direction. The birds derive their north direction from interpreting the inclination of the axial direction of the magnetic field lines in space, and they take the direction on the magnetic north-south axis for "north" where field lines and gravity vector form the smaller angle.