Migratory orientation of Scandinavian and Greenland wheatears was recorded during the autumn migration periods of 1988 and 1989. Orientation cage tests were conducted under clear sunset skies, to investigate the importance of different visible sky sections on orientation performance. In addition, wheatears were released under clear starry skies and under total overcast to examine the orientation of free-flying birds. The following results were obtained:

  • 1
    Wheatears tested with a restricted visible sky section (90° centered around zenith) in orientation cages, showed a mean orientation towards geographic W/geomagnetic NW (Greenland) and towards geographic and magnetic WNW-NW (Sweden). These mean directions are clearly inconsistent with the expected autumn migration directions, SW-SSW in Scandinavia and SE in Greenland, as revealed by ringing recoveries for the two populations.
  • 2
    When the birds were allowed a much more extensive view of the sky, almost down to the horizon (above 10° elevation), Scandinavian wheatears chose headings in agreement with ringing data. Greenland birds were not significantly oriented.
  • 3
    Release experiments under clear starry skies resulted in mean vanishing directions in good agreement with ringing data from both sites. Greenland wheatears released under total overcast showed a similar orientation as under clear skies, indicating that a view of the stars may not be of crucial importance for selecting a seasonally accurate migratory direction.

The results suggest that an unobstructed view of the sky, including visual cues low over the horizon, is important, possibly in combination with geomagnetic cues, for the orientation of migratory naive wheatears. Furthermore, the birds showed remarkably similar orientation responses in Greenland and Scandinavia, respectively, indicating that they use basically the same orientation system, despite considerable differences in visual and geomagnetic orientation premises at the two different geographic and magnetic latitudes.