While the navigational skills of birds remain largely unexplained, the theory that they use the magnetic field of the earth to some degree to map their positions is generally accepted. The magnetic field of the earth is weakest at the equator, becoming stronger toward the north and south poles. This change in magnetic strength may give birds an estimate of their latitude while in flight. This amazing ability to navigate is especially evident in homing pigeons which are able to find their way home over distances of as much as 1,100 miles (1,800 km) with unwavering accuracy. Research has revealed that pigeons have a significant number of iron particles on top of their beaks, which act as a natural compass to guide them, along with visual landmarks and olfactory markers.
It has long been debated whether manmade electromagnetic fields are detrimental to human health, and conservationists share this concern when it comes to animals, particularly migratory birds. A recent study by scientists from Oldenburg University in Germany has found that manmade electromagnetic fields are confusing migrating robins, which also rely on the earth’s magnetic field for navigation. The study was prompted by observations made seven years ago when it was noted that European robins (Erithacus rubecula) stopping over at the university campus during their annual migration appeared confused. Over the next seven years, experiments were carried out by alternatively blocking and unblocking electromagnetic radiation and observing the behavior of the birds. It became clear that when the birds were exposed to the manmade electromagnetic forces they became disoriented. It is worth noting that birds are susceptible to far lower levels than those deemed safe for humans as set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) which mandates guidelines for all types of electrical devices, including power lines and mobile phones.
What this means for both animals and humans will no doubt remain a matter for debate as more research is carried out to understand the impact of modern technology on the natural world.
Covering more than 24 hectares, with more than four thousand birds representing 675 species from all around the world, Weltvogelpark Walsrode is a birding enthusiast’s paradise. Promoted as the largest bird park in the world, both in land area and number of species, Weltvogelpark is located near the town of Walsrode in Lower Saxony, Germany. The park is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012 with a host of events and special displays, one of which is more than three million spring flowers – a picturesque palette of vibrant color.
With special emphasis on conservation, Weltvogelpark offers an outing that is both entertaining and educational. The walk-in free-flight aviaries allow visitors to observe the birds in their natural habitat, while flight demonstrations demonstrate the amazing skills of birds, and feeding times provide insight into the needs of various species, including pelicans, penguins, vultures and flamingoes. The park offers special events and classes for school groups, while ensuring that visitors of all ages and levels of mobility have access to the features of the park. Experienced rangers are on hand for guided tours, and boards detailing interesting facts about the Weltvogelpark’s feathered residents are placed throughout the spacious reserve.
The park is also involved in research and conservation projects, and has had a measure of success in breeding some endangered species, including the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), and Shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex). While breeding is generally allowed to take its natural course at Weltvogelpark, sometimes it is necessary to intervene, particularly with rare and endangered species. In these cases the eggs are artificially incubated and the birds are hand-raised, ensuring that they bond with their own species as soon as possible to avoid being imprinted by humans. In 2011 more than 600 young birds hatched out – clearly they are happy in their environment.
In addition to the outstanding facilities for the park’s birds, Weltvogelpark Walsrode boasts one of the largest botanical gardens to be found in Northern Germany. More than 70 species of roses and 120 different species of rhododendron are features of the botanical gardens, with hundreds of different trees, flowers and shrubs, both indigenous and exotic, providing color throughout the year.
A kingfisher from Poland has reportedly set a new record for the longest migration distance between the Continent and the United Kingdom, by flying a distance of more than 620 miles from its Polish habitat to the Orford Ness National Nature Reserve in Woodbridge, Suffolk. The ringed bird was captured, and later released, by members of the Felixstowe-based Landguard Bird Observatory who were carrying out routine studies on bird ringing at Orford Ness.
The previous record set by a bird of this species was 603 miles, traveling from Marloes, Pembrokeshire to Irun in Spain. The last ringed kingfisher found to have traveled from Europe to the UK, traveled 509 miles from Aken, Germany, in October 2008. While it still needs to be confirmed where exactly the kingfisher was ringed in order to establish the correct distance, Poland is further east than any of the other destinations recorded, making it a record-breaking flight irrespective of where in Poland the bird originated. While kingfishers routinely breed in Poland, a small number are known to migrate to the United Kingdom in autumn, presumably to escape areas that face long periods of freezing conditions.
While acknowledging that bird ringing is not a perfect science, the National Trust warden for Orford Ness, Duncan Kent, pointed out that over a period of time huge amounts of information are collected, providing insight into how long birds live, how far they travel and other valuable data for research purposes. Orford Ness site manager for the National Trust, Grant Lohoar, noted that the capture of the ringed kingfisher highlights the importance of this practice as a tool for conservation, as it allows researchers to identify individual birds.
Research carried out at Orford Ness is considered to be of utmost importance as, with its reed beds, marshes and lagoons, the area serves as a critical stopover site for migrating birds. Landguard Bird Observatory volunteer, Mike Marsh noted that if the kingfisher is indeed confirmed to be from Poland it will be one of the longest migrations for this species recorded in the database for bird ringing. The British Trust for Ornithology will follow up with Polish authorities to determine the point of origin of the record-breaking kingfisher.