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Electronics Disrupt Bird Migration

May 07, 2014 05:12 PM EDT
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If birds could talk, most would not be able to tell you which way was north, and they would blame your electronics for it. Electromagnetic noise interference from human electronics have been interfering with the internal compass of migratory birds for decades, according to a recent study.

The study, published in the journal Nature, describes how European robins were unable to orient themselves using their "magnetic compass" - the natural sense of direction migratory birds are born with.

Years ago, in the wake of growing concerns about electromagnetic fields (EMF) - one of the largest forms of potentially harmful modern "pollution" - the World Health Organization (WHO) released the EMF World Wide Standard Database. These standard were designed to limit the intensities of EMF exposures so that the invisible fields would not result in any measurable biological effects or health consequences on humans and wildlife alike.

However, researchers from the University of Oldenburg in Germany, and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom have determined that even EMF frequencies well under the recommended WHO standards can disrupt the migration of some birds.

In an unrelated five year study, researchers attempted to determine which part of the brain in European robins helped them navigate where north was. For two years, the robins immediately few north when freed from their cages, according to National Geographic and a 2008 Nature study.

Then, for three subsequent years, the birds left their cages in every odd direction, showing no indication they knew where north was. However, when released from Faraday cages - grounded metal cages that block static magnetic fields - the robins immediately all flew in the correct direction. Curious, the research team launched a new study to investigate why this was happening.

Following up on the previous observation they had just made, the researcher then flooded Faraday cage-like huts with low-level broadband noise - the kind from an AM radio - while letting the robin free. They found that these birds too had no idea where they were going.

Interestingly, even though these radio signals are found everywhere, if taken far from the source, the birds appeared to be able to orient themselves as well, indicating that it was the intensity of the EMFs of the electronics in an urban setting, and not the specific AM frequency itself, that was disrupting the birds.

While this may be alarming for some bird lovers, the researcher behind the study theorize that migratory birds can reorient themselves once out of range of thick urban electromagnetic fields.

The study was published in Nature  on May 7. The authors of the study have expressed that they are unlikely to conduct a larger population follow-up.

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