Rethinking classic starling displacement experiments: evidence for innate or for learned migratory directions?

Theunis Piersma, A. H. Jelle Loonstra, Mo A. Verhoeven, Thomas Oudman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


In an attempt to encourage the discourse on sources of individual variation in seasonal migration patterns and the microevolution of bird migration, we here critically examine the published interpretations of a now classic displacement study with starlings Sturnus vulgaris. Based on the ring recoveries after experimental displacement towards the south and southeast of Dutch capture sites of over 18 000 hatch‐year and older starlings, in a series of analyses published in Ardea from 1958 to 1983, A. C. Perdeck established that displaced starlings showed appropriately changed orientations only when they were experienced. During both southward and northward migration, released adults navigated to an apparently previously learned goal (i.e. the wintering or the breeding area) by showing appropriately changed orientations. Juveniles showed appropriate directions when returning to the breeding grounds. In contrast, during their first southward migration displaced juveniles carried on in the direction (and possibly the distance) expected for their release at the Dutch capture site. From the mid‐1970s this work has become cited as evidence for starlings demonstrating ‘innate’ migratory directions. If the definition of innateness is ‘not learned by the individual itself’, then there is a range of non‐innate influences on development that are not ruled out by Perdeck's experimental outcomes. For example, young starlings might have carried on in the direction that they learned to migrate before being caught, e.g. by observing the migratory directions of experienced conspecifics. We argue that, despite over 60 citations to Perdeck as demonstrating innate migratory directions, the jury is out.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02337
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 9 May 2020


  • Migration
  • Orientation
  • Navigation
  • Ontogeny
  • Learning
  • Innate


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