Research shows migrating storks learn by experience


A recent study of White Storks has demonstrated that individual experiences contribute to the honing of migratory behaviour.

Led by researchers from the University of Wyoming (UW) and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, the study has shone light on the role of experiential learning in migration. The research challenges the accepted wisdom that migration is simply shaped by genetics and social behaviour.

The researchers tracked more than 250 White Storks in southern Germany and Austria between 2013 and 2020. This revealed migration pathways and measured the timing, speed and estimated energy expenditure during flight for every bird involved.

White Storks appear to make more efficient journeys as they grow older, but other species could also be using their experiences to take better routes (Richard Mills).


Migration experience

The findings showed that younger storks shift from exploring new areas during migration to taking faster and more direct routes as they gain experience. Older individuals seem to stop exploring.

Ellen Aikens, lead researcher and faculty member at UW's Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, said: "As the birds age and gain more experience, older individuals stop exploring new places and instead move more quickly and directly, resulting in greater energy expenditure during migratory flight."

During spring migration, the storks often took shortcuts, suggesting they used spatial memory to take the best route.


Learning from mistakes

The study suggests that, as well as being influenced by genetics and culturally inherited information, the birds learn and use information from their previous experiences to ultimately undergo more efficient journeys.

The researchers wrote: "The landscapes that animals move through are complex and dynamic, requiring that migrants learn where and when favourable conditions that facilitate movement occur and how to exploit them efficiently."

The study's findings could have implications for our understanding of a wide range of migrating species and the factors influencing their routes and timings.



Aikens, E O, Nourani, E, Fiedler, W, Wikelski, M, & Flack, A. 2024, 'Learning shapes the development of migratory behavior'. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 121, no. 12. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2306389121

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