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Birds' eyes, not beaks, sense magnetic fields

New study pinpoints migratory songbirds’ magnetic compass in a specific brain region

A cell in the eye may be worth two in the beak, at least when it comes to a migratory bird’s magnetic compass. In European robins, a visual center in the brain and light-sensing cells in the eye — not magnetic sensing cells in the beak — allow the songbirds to sense which direction is north and migrate correctly, a new study finds. The study, appearing October 29 in Nature, may improve conservation efforts for migratory birds.

“This is really fascinating science,” says biophysicist Klaus Schulten of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was one of the first to suggest that migrating birds can sense magnetic fields.

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