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The problem of estimating wind drift in migrating birds

  • Martin Green
  • Thomas Alerstam
Publishing year: 2002
Language: English
Pages: 485-496
Publication/Series: Journal of Theoretical Biology
Volume: 218
Issue: 4
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Academic Press

Abstract english

Whether migrating birds compensate for wind drift or not is a fundamental question in bird migration research. The procedures to demonstrate and quantitatively estimate wind drift or compensation are fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. In this paper, we evaluate four methods that have been used in several studies over the past decades. We evaluate the methods by analysing a model migratory movement with a realistic scatter in flight directions, for the ideal cases of full drift and complete compensation. Results obtained with the different methods are then compared with the "true behaviour" of the model movement, illustrating that spurious patterns of drift and compensation arise in some cases. We also illustrate and evaluate the different methods of estimating drift for a real case, based on tracking radar measurements of bird migration in relation to winds. Calculating the linear regression of mean geographic track (resulting flight direction) and heading directions (directions of the birds' body axis) of a migratory movement under different wind conditions in relation to the angle a (the angle between mean track and heading) always provides robust and reliable results. Comparing mean flight directions between occasions with winds from the left and right of the mean flight direction of the whole migratory movement also always provides expected and correct measures of drift. In contrast, regressions of individual flight directions in relation to alpha (the angle between track and heading for the specific individuals or flocks) are liable to produce biased and spurious results, overestimating compensation/ overcompensation if following winds dominate in the analysis and overestimating drift/ overdrift if opposed winds are dominating. Comparing mean directions for cases with winds from the left and right in relation to individual flight directions also gives biased and spurious results unless there is full variation in wind directions or an equal distribution of crosswinds from left and right. The results of the methodological evaluation and the analysis of the real case indicate that some earlier analyses of wind drift may have to be re-evaluated. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.


  • Ecology
  • Biological Sciences


  • ISSN: 1095-8541
Martin Green
E-mail: martin [dot] green [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se



+46 46 222 38 16



Research group

Biodiversity and Conservation Science



PhD students & postdocs

Assistant supervisor

Dafne Ram