How Do Birds Navigate? | Birds Navigation System | What Do Birds Use For Navigation?

If we, humans, get lost, we resort to a compass to find the best direction to take. The magnetic needle of the compass aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field and points to the North and South. From it, we can deduce the east and the west and find our way.

How do birds navigate? 

Birds, especially migratory birds, are known to fly thousands of kilometers. What impresses us and piques us is their remarkable homing instincts. They return to the same place year after year with an accuracy that is impressive and remarkable.  

Birds and Navigation 

Navigation is often considered the sixth sense in birds. For quite a long time, scientists believed that the iron-rich neurons in the bird’s beak transmitted the information about the earth’s magnetic field to its brain. But studies have proved that these so-called neurons are actually macrophages or white blood cells that boost the bird’s immunity.  

Birds demonstrate an uncanny compass sense. Birds can fly in a particular constant direction. Even if you transport them to an unfamiliar territory, they are able to determine which path to take and reach the right place. They can determine which direction to take and to maintain that direction.  

The fixed path that migratory birds take to fly are called Flyways.  

Related Read: Do Birds Get Tired Of Flying | How Long Can Birds Fly Without Stopping?

What do Birds Use for Navigation? / Bird’s Navigation System  

Scientists are not exactly sure about how birds navigate. However, various hypotheses have been put forward for it. 

Going by the experts, birds have an internal GPS system that allows them to navigate properly and use the same route year after year.  

It is believed that a young bird imprints on the sun and the stars for proper orientation. It is also believed that birds recognize landmarks and use them for proper navigation.  Another popular belief is that birds can smell their way across a flyway.  

The most popular belief is about the bird’s ability to see the earth’s magnetic lines. Researchers claim a small spot of magnetite on the beaks of the birds like pigeons that contain magnetite, a magnetized rock.

Researchers believe that it is this rock that functions as a GPS and provides information of the bird’s position relative to the Earth’s poles.  

Researchers also state that the bird’s eye has some specialized cells which enable them to see the magnetic fields. Often both the magnetite and the eye sensors work in unison to guide the bird’s incorrect navigation.  

Types of Navigation in Birds  

From the above research and studies, it is evident that birds use several techniques to navigate correctly and precisely. They are: 

Magnetic compass 

Birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and can even see them. Because of this internal compass, birds always orient themselves in the right direction for long journeys.  

Geographical mapping  

Birds also manifest sharp memory using their keen eyesight. They would identify various landforms and geographic features like the mountains, rivers, lakes, coastline, etc.

Later, these emerge as their guiding and recognizable points to help them stay true to their path.  

Star Orientation  

It is fascinating that birds use the star compass to navigate the sky during nights. Thye use star positions and orientation of the constellation to deduce navigation directions.  


The stars can be used during the night, but what about the day? Well, then the sun proves to be a bird’s friend. The sun compass was discovered by Gustav Kramer in 1951. He performed an experiment in which European starlings were placed in orientation cages.

Mirrors were used to change the apparent position of the sun. The birds kept changing their positions to match the new apparent direction of the sun.  

Learned routes  

Birds like sandhill cranes and snow geese teach the young birds of the flock, the route of migration. Once the young birds become knowledgeable, they travel the migratory flyway all by themselves.  

Apart from these major navigation techniques, birds use several other clues to find their way. Few of them include strong scent for different habitats, ambient sounds along their flyways, etc.

Birds are also known to take clues to other species with similar needs for a successful migration.  

Related FAQs on Birds Navigation 

Birds’ navigation still holds many mysteries. Here, we put together some common questions around it for better assimilation.  

How do birds navigate using the earth’s magnetic field? 

We have already stated that birds can see the magnetic field using the magnetite in their cells. Scientists suggest that the magnetic field of the earth could form a grid.

The birds can see it and follow the east-west and north-south lines to navigate their way successfully.  

How do birds use the sun to navigate? 

Homing birds are known to orient themselves geographically. Research has revealed a sun compass in the birds, which is tied to its circadian rhythm. Further, the birds display a time compensation ability that helps them to make allowances for the changing sun’s position throughout the day.

This way, the sun acts as a compass for the birds and helps them stay on course.  

Do birds use landmarks to navigate? 

Yes, birds have been known to learn landmarks and use it for navigation.  

How do birds navigate at night? 

Birds use the star compass to help them navigate at night. They identify specific star patterns and adjust themselves to its orientation to navigate the night sky in the right direction.  

How do birds navigate in fog? 

Fog has a different effect on different birds. If a bird is in its home turf and knows the area well, they have no problem flying safely to their home. However, they lower their activity during the fog.  

Many migratory birds keep flying during fog, albeit slowly. It is because the bird’s vision capability allows them to see beyond the violet and ultraviolet spectrum. Hence, they do not face the problem of the scattering of the blue light that human vision faces.  

Migratory birds like cranes fly cautiously in the fog. They prefer staying close to the roost and prefer flying circles instead of straight lines. When passing through the fog, they utilize their vision and acoustic and magnetic cues to find their way.  

Do adult and baby birds navigate the same way? 

The homing instinct of a baby bird usually varies from that of an adult bird. There are many young birds who do not migrate with their parents. Such baby birds have an innate sense of direction and distance they must travel. However, they lack any specific direction.

After one year, each bird has the ability to return back to the same place even if they lose their way for any number of reasons.  

Why do homing birds get lost? 

As a rule, homing birds are excellent navigators and so not get lost. But occasionally, they can lose their way. It happens because of weather or migration events. Homing birds get lost when the bird’s navigational ability ditches them due to incidents like hurricanes, thunderstorms, etc.  

What to do if you find a lost homing pigeon? 

Lost homing pigeons are often tired, thirsty, and hungry. Hence, you should first feed them water and food. Then, they must be kept in a cage or any place that is protected from predators like the dog or cat. Once the pigeon is healthy and well, it can be released if wild or returned to its owner if banded.  

Wrapping up 

The homing and navigational ability of the bird leaves us in awe. We hope you enjoyed learning about their navigational abilities as much as we loved sharing them. Do get back to us with any queries, suggestions, or experiences. 

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