Learning how to migrate: Young whoopers stay the course when they follow a wise old bird

Learning how to migrate: Young whoopers stay the course when they follow a wise old bird

How do birds find their way on migration? Is their route encoded in their genes, or learned? Working with records from a long-term effort to reintroduce critically endangered whooping cranes in the Eastern US, researchers found these long-lived birds learn the route from older cranes, and get better at it with age.

via ScienceDaily: Top Science News:

Aug. 29, 2013 — Scientists have studied bird migration for centuries, but it remains one of nature’s great mysteries. How do birds find their way over long distances between breeding and wintering sites? Is their migration route encoded in their genes, or is it learned?Working with records from a long-term effort to reintroduce critically endangered whooping cranes in the Eastern U.S., a University of Maryland-led research team found evidence that these long-lived birds learn their migration route from older cranes, and get better at it with age.Whooping crane groups that included a seven-year-old adult deviated 38% less from a migratory straight-line path between their Wisconsin breeding grounds and Florida wintering grounds, the researchers found. One-year-old birds that did not follow older birds veered, on average, 60 miles (97 kilometers) from a straight flight path. When the one-year-old cranes traveled with older birds, the average deviation was less than 40 miles (64 kilometers).Individual whoopers’ ability to stick to the route increased steadily each year up to about age 5, and remained roughly constant from that point on, the researchers found.Many migration studies are done in short-lived species like songbirds, or by comparing a young bird to an older bird, said UMD biologist Thomas Mueller, an expert on animal migration and the study’s lead scientist. “Here we could look over the course of the individual animals’ lifetimes, and show that learning takes place over many years.”The researchers’ findings, to be published August 30 in the journal Science, are based on data from an intensive effort to restore the endangered bird to its native range. The whooping crane (Grus americana), is North America’s largest bird, standing five feet tall, and one of its longest-lived, surviving 30 years or more in the wild. The species was near extinction in the 1940s, with fewer than 25 individuals. Today about 250 wild whoopers summer in Canada and migrate to Texas for the winter.The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, made up of government and non-profit experts, has been working since 2001 to establish a second population in the Eastern U.S., which now numbers more than 100 birds. …

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ScienceDaily: Top Science News

Learning how to migrate: Young whoopers stay the course when they follow a wise old bird

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