Birds Use Their Sixth Sense to Land on Water

To avoid crash landings, birds employ their ability to sense magnetic fields.

Without control towers and runway lights, you'd think flocks of waterfowl would risk collisions when they make water landings. Yet such accidents are extremely rare. Czech and German researchers suspected the birds might be helped by their ability to sense magnetic fields. Using binoculars and compasses to observe more than 3,000 flocks in eight countries, they found that the birds typically hit the water along a north-south axis, particularly when it's cloudy—suggesting they use magnetic cues to coordinate their descent paths. In addition to helping orient landing direction, the scientists speculate that the ability might also serve as an inclinometer, relaying information the birds need to identify and follow a safe angle. Previous studies have shown that birds rely on magnetic fields to navigate flight routes, but this is the first to show that the sixth sense might play an important role in ensuring a safe landing.

This story originally ran in the November-December 2013 issue as "Landing Gear."