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Emlen funnel experiments revisited : methods update for studying compass orientation in songbirds

  • Giuseppe Bianco
  • Mihaela Ilieva
  • Clas Veibäck
  • Kristoffer Öfjäll
  • Alicja Gadomska
  • Gustaf Hendeby
  • Michael Felsberg
  • Fredrik Gustafsson
  • Susanne Åkesson
Publishing year: 2016-10-01
Language: English
Pages: 6930-6942
Publication/Series: Ecology and Evolution
Volume: 6
Issue: 19
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

Abstract english

Migratory songbirds carry an inherited capacity to migrate several thousand kilometers each year crossing continental landmasses and barriers between distant breeding sites and wintering areas. How individual songbirds manage with extreme precision to find their way is still largely unknown. The functional characteristics of biological compasses used by songbird migrants has mainly been investigated by recording the birds directed migratory activity in circular cages, so-called Emlen funnels. This method is 50 years old and has not received major updates over the past decades. The aim of this work was to compare the results from newly developed digital methods with the established manual methods to evaluate songbird migratory activity and orientation in circular cages. We performed orientation experiments using the European robin (Erithacus rubecula) using modified Emlen funnels equipped with thermal paper and simultaneously recorded the songbird movements from above. We evaluated and compared the results obtained with five different methods. Two methods have been commonly used in songbirds’ orientation experiments; the other three methods were developed for this study and were based either on evaluation of the thermal paper using automated image analysis, or on the analysis of videos recorded during the experiment. The methods used to evaluate scratches produced by the claws of birds on the thermal papers presented some differences compared with the video analyses. These differences were caused mainly by differences in scatter, as any movement of the bird along the sloping walls of the funnel was recorded on the thermal paper, whereas video evaluations allowed us to detect single takeoff attempts by the birds and to consider only this behavior in the orientation analyses. Using computer vision, we were also able to identify and separately evaluate different behaviors that were impossible to record by the thermal paper. The traditional Emlen funnel is still the most used method to investigate compass orientation in songbirds under controlled conditions. However, new numerical image analysis techniques provide a much higher level of detail of songbirds’ migratory behavior and will provide an increasing number of possibilities to evaluate and quantify specific behaviors as new algorithms will be developed.


  • Zoology
  • Computer vision
  • image analysis
  • magnetic alignment
  • navigation


  • ISSN: 2045-7758
Susanne Åkesson
E-mail: susanne [dot] akesson [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se


Evolutionary ecology

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