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Not fowl play - remarkable GPS in chickens

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For the past 20 years, Dr Ursula Munro's research has focussed on migratory behaviour in birds. Certainly it is widely accepted now that migratory birds use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient their flights north and south.
However the migratory behaviours in these global travellers is hard to research - not only are they wild birds who must be caught and acclimatised to being in captivity, but the orienting patterns are only evident during the migratory phase of the year.
Now Ursula Munro and her research collaborators have discovered that a species much closer to home shows similar magnetic orientation – domestic chickens! And the common chook is not fussed by being around people and is not reknowned for marathon migratory flights. And they have developed an elegent way of testing magnetic orientation in chickens....it relies on newly hatched chickens' instinctive IMPRINTING on their mother hen.

Chickens imprint on their mother hen when they hatch, this means they will identify with that particular hen and desperately try to stay close to her at all times.  This acts as a safety mechanism for the chicks as well as a way of learning what to eat, where to go, what to avoid.    
However, if a chicken hatches without a hen present, they can be imprinted on other animals or even objects - so long as they are continually close by.  Conrad Lorenz's pioneering work on imprinting had chickens  imprinted on a host of odd objects from boxes and watering cans to toy dogs.
In the research by Ursula and her colleagues, chickens were imprinted on red table tennis balls. Indeed the chickens so wanted to be with their 'mothers' that they became very upset when the balls went out of sight.
To test the magnetic orientation theory a four-cornered arena was set up with a screen at each corner oriented to one of the four compass points.
Each chick was tested individually in the arena to find their mother ball which would always be hidden behind the same screen.  For some chicks the 'mother' was always behind the screen at the north compass point; for others, mother was always behind the southly screen, and some at east or west.  The chicks very quickly learnt to find their respective mother and
would head for their correct 'mother', no matter what the compass point was involved. 


All illustrations provided by Ursula Munro and are drawn from their recent research findings.

Now the researchers were ready to test the strength of the magnetic orientation in the chicks' ability to find their 'mother'.
This was done by skewing the magnetic orientations - setting up magnetic coils around the arena, so that, for example magnetic north would now be aligned to the 'west' direction.
This didn’t faze the chickens one bit. Amazingly, they simply headed straight away for the newly designated direction, no matter what the configurations were. This was clearly no learned response. Whenever a direction was reconfigured, the chickens would head for that screen, no matter where it was.

In a third test, the researchers blocked the magnetic fields to see what would happen. This time, the chicks made many errors, screen selection became random, and while the chicks learned to find the correct screen, it was typical trial and error learning.

So why do domestic chooks have a 'magnetic compass'?  Clearly they are not migratory birds who use this perceptual abilty to guide them across the globe.    
Dr Munro points out that chickens belong to a very ancient linage of birds - far older than the migratory species.  They are descendants of jungle fowl who live in dense forests where perhaps this magnetic compass may help locate particular places within the dense bush, since even the sun or stars, often obscured by forest foliage might not serve as reliable map references.
The team plans to include other species including quail and jungle fowl in their future research into this characteristic.
It seems that the term dumbcluck is obsolete.
Text: V.B. June 2008

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