Our electronics may be messing up birds' migratory patterns

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Our Electronics May Be Messing Up Birds' Migratory Patterns

A German team found humans' electric equipment and AM radio signals have been confusing European robins' internal compasses, making it harder for our feathered friends to navigate.

BBC reports, "Scientists believe the effects are strongest when the birds fly over urban areas and the report says the birds are sometimes forced to switch to backup navigational systems using the sun and the stars instead."
Our electronics may be messing up birds' migratory patterns
A picture taken on February 18, 2014 shows a flock of migrating starlings performing its traditional dance fly before landing to sleep in the Israeli Jordan Valley near the city of Beit Shean. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on February 18, 2014 shows a flock of migrating starlings performing its traditional dance fly before landing to sleep in the Israeli Jordan Valley near the city of Beit Shean. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
A flock of migrating starlings is seen as they perform their traditional dance fly before landing to sleep during the sunset near the southern Israeli village of Tidhar, in the northern Israeli Negev desert, on February 12, 2014. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
A flock of migrating starlings is seen as they perform their traditional dance fly before land to sleep during the sunset near the southern Israeli village of Tidhar in the northern Israeli Negev desert on February 11, 2014. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
A flock of migrating starlings is seen as they perform their traditional dance fly before land to sleep during the sunset near the southern Israeli village of Tidhar in the northern Israeli Negev desert on February 11, 2014. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
HULA LAKE, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 26: (ISRAEL OUT) Migrating gray cranes fly over the Hula Lake on November 26, 2013 in northern Israel. The tens of thousands of cranes which break their southward migration to and from Africa from as far away as Siberia spend a few days at the lakes feeding in farmer's fields and gathering their strength for their onward journeys. An estimated 500 million birds fly over Israel twice a year in their annual migrations. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
EMEK HEFER, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 21: (ISRAEL OUT) Migratory pelicans line up as they break their southward migration at an agricultural water reservoir on November 21, 2013 in Emek Hefer Valley, Israel. The thousands of pelicans which break their southward migration spend a few days at the reservoir feeding in farmers' fields and gathering their strength for their onward journeys. An estimated 500 million birds fly over the Holy Land twice a year in their annual migrations. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
HERGLA, TUNISIA - DECEMBER 17: Migratory birds stand on a tree on December 17, 2013 in Hergla, Tunisia. Hergla is a small cliff-top town in northeastern Tunisia off the Gulf of Hammamet. In the roman period Hergla was the boarder town between the historic regions Byzacena and Zeugitana. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Storks fly over the border between Turkey and Syria, as they prepare to migrate on September 1, 2013, in Hatay. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
LEIGH-ON-SEA, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 02: Thousands of Brent Geese gather at Two Tree Island in the Thames Estuary on October 02, 2013 in Leigh on Sea, England. Each year Brent Geese make a dangerous 2,500 mile journey from Siberia to spend the winter around our coast with up to ten thousand settling in the Thames Estuary. (Photo by John Keeble/Getty Images)
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Time reports "man-made radiation stemming from electronic devices" is to blame, but did say a researcher and co-author of the report from Germany's University of Oldenburg didn't believe it at first.

"'At first, I was highly skeptical that this could be the explanation.​ But if you have seemingly unlikely effects then the proof needs to be much stronger -- and that is why we have done so many experiments over seven years.'"

Outside Online explains the research shows our devices "pollute the atmosphere" with electromagnetic waves. Here's the difference:
"​[The researcher] covered wooden huts housing his robins with aluminum plating ... When his team grounded the plating-reducing the electromagnetic interference ... they found that the birds could orient themselves."
Now, inside those huts was thermal paper, and when the birds attempted to fly north, their feet would mark the paper in the direction they attempted to fly. And if you haven't already guessed it, the birds couldn't figure out where north was when the huts weren't grounded.

So, why do we care? Nature explains, "The work raises the controversial prospect that it might be necessary for humans to stop using the relevant part of the electromagnetic spectrum." That could include things like AM radio transmissions.

Still, other scientists have cautioned against concluding the findings applied to birds in all cities. The researchers are planning more experiments to understand how birds use their magnetic senses to navigate.
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