Google Earth Shows Cows Magnetic? Really?

Magnetic Cows in Google EarthFor the past couple of days I’ve been seeing the reports of a scientific study about cows conducted using Google Earth. The results from this study sound like a hoax. German scientists studied hundreds of herds from around the Earth found in Google Earth, they say that cows seem to align themselves with the magnetic north when lying or grazing. See Los Angeles Times story. This study was actually published in the proceedings for the National Academy of Science. It’s been a scientific fact that birds and bees seem to navigate via magnetic fields. But, this is the first I’ve herd that cows can do it!
Naturally, I wanted to see if I could duplicate the scientists’ results. So, I started looking for herds of cows in Google Earth and placemarked their locations. Here is a collection of cow herds found in a few countries. I used Barry Hunter’s magnetic compass add-on for Google Earth (see post), so you can see the difference between true north and magnetic north in the GE compass.
Check out the placemarks and see what you think. Personally, I don’t see any evidence that cows are aligning themselves more towards the north than any other direction. Is this study for real? In the attached screenshot, these cows are pointing north – but, they might have a reason for that – feed bins. There are a lot of cows in similar pens nearby aligned north/south or east/west – all due to feeding. If the scientists used those types of groupings for their statistics, I think they are pretty bogus.
The other possible explanation that occurs to me is that the scientists were looking at the shadows. The shadows of cows (and other objects) in Google Earth will generally point to the north/south because most of the photos will be taken as close to noon as possible to get maximum brightness.

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. Mark reidy says

    Cows will only do that in the right weather i.e. if it is a cold day they align themselves with the sun not magnetic north!

  2. Rather embarrassingly just noticed the link in my post is wrong! It should be
    the other is to a static compass that will never turn 🙁

  3. However have updated the script so visitors clicking on the original link for the first time will be redirected.
    People who have already tried to load the compass will have to try again.
    Sorry again.

  4. Sandy Walker says

    How often does Google Earth refresh its satelite pictures?

  5. Martin Fischbacher says

    It might be not working in the case of the english cows, because they are sheeps or rather short cows and due to that they don’t behave in the way the scientists say. One other thing, as I see how cows are treated in California, you can’t call that a herd, a bunch of cows or cowjail but no herd and maybe if the herd mentallity is lost everything else too…just a thought…may you try it here: 53° 9’16.58″N, 8°45’28.39″E many cows around there…

  6. i think the study refers to grasing, not to cows on lots with bins…
    the cows have to be on meadows with real grass… no???

  7. According to my theory cows align themselves to the actual wind direction, especially when it’s raining. Unfortunately it’s impossible to prove this theory using Google Earth, since probably close to zero percent of the imagery has been photographed with bad weather.

  8. I think smokeonit has made a crucial point about research methodology. The distinction must be made between feeding methods for the cattle. Naturally, they will align themselves with the feeding bin when they’re in a feedlot vs. free range feeding. Hmmm…more research is in order, here. 🙂

  9. You know, if you wanna be more persuasive in your argument that this cow-north thing is fishy, you probably shouldn’t provide a picture where cows are pointing north, without any other picture of cows pointing east-west…

  10. Hello Frank
    Thanks for this article. I have doubts about this theory too. I read about this in the GEC and then I made some screenshots with grazing cows in hig-res. Unaffected from your article, I read it today for the first time, I came to the same result. I can’t find any north/south alignment. today i wrote an E-mail to Dr. Sabine Begall in the University Duisburg-Essen. If she answers me I let you know.
    GEC discussion with sceenshots:
    Best Regards, Felippo

  11. I’m almost convinced that the cattle may orient themselves so that they’re more likely to detect the odor of approaching predators. Which theory might be tested in an area of known and consistent prevailing winds.
    But I’m a city child, so I’ll rely on udders (sorry!) to confirm/reject that theory.

  12. Farmer’s have known for years that cows tend to face north on sunny days, to feel warmth all day long on their hides.
    And on cloudy days, the herd is not aligned.
    We all know how that feels, sun on our backs.
    It has nothing to do with magnetic north.

  13. anyPilots? says

    I have heard that Pilots can determine surface wind direction by observing the orientation of cows. Supposedly cows (and other animals) will face into the wind as a protection from predators – something about being able to hear better, or the way that scent travels – so pilots can use this information as a navigation or landing aid.
    Any confirmation from pilots?
    I would guess that the cow would have to decide if it is more important to be warm, avoid predators, or satisfy some magnetic influence.
    In any case I doubt that there is a simple answer to this.

  14. I live in rural North Georgia and have observed cows (& goats & horses)grazing in open fields daily for the last 27 years. Most all the time they are all facing the same direction, it is between north and east, mostly east. just casually grazing animals are scattered, actively grazing all face the same way.
    I know that active feeding times flow with moon phases, which has to do with gravitational pull and on and on. I used to get a little paperback that had the moon phases, cannot remember the title, it was very accurate. The fish were biting, pets were restless, wild critters crossing the road.
    An observer of nature.

  15. Hi, i can’t find the collection of cow herds kml, could send a new link?

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.