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How Do Pigeons Navigate?

       Pigeons are some of the most remarkable domestic animals in the world. Their navigational abilities are hard to match with any other birds. Those of you who possess pigeons are familiar with the extraordinary senses that a pigeon has to return home. Basically, you can take the bird to any given place where it has never been before and it will know how to return back home. For the pigeon to choose the right way back home it is necessary to circle the sky a few times. This ability of these birds extended for tens or even hundreds of kilometers away from home.

This ability of the pigeons has largely been used by humans, mostly for carrying important messages. Nowadays, scientists are trying to study this behavior and come up with new improved ideas in terms of understanding the map and the mechanism behind pigeon navigation.

What Do We Know?

            Of course, pigeons can’t simply find their home without any effort or any given cues. Being in an alienated landscape without any contact with home must be very confusing for our fellow bird friends too. For decades many theories have been debated, such as reading the sun’s arc in order to detect the long-distance infra-sounds. But none of the theories can fully explain this mechanism.

            The most persistent and attractive theory is that the pigeons use the dip-angle and the predictable gradients of intensity from the earth’s magnetic field in order to place themselves in a position similar to their known values from home. As persistent as this theory sounds it is still not fully understood, and thus it has a high probability of being false.  The confusion here is mainly due to the magnetic compass that most of the birds have and which gives them a sense of direction even when the sun is hidden in the clouds. This compass is a very reliable tool for long-distance navigation and plays an important role in migration. Still, this can’t help the bird navigate if the end of the road is unknown. The groundbreaking revolutionary idea is that the birds guide themselves using the olfactory sense. Yes, pigeons navigate by using smell.

Best GPS - The Nose

            The latest studies showed that pigeons who are deprived of the ability to smell can’t navigate at all. If the pigeons are fooled with air from the wrong site then they will fly in the other direction. And although this sounds very simple to demonstrate it is quite the opposite. Together with all the other theories about pigeon navigation, this too has experts who doubt it, and for good reason too.

            The case is made pretty strong though by the number of studies made in the last 40 years which had good results towards this direction. The most likely scenario is that the pigeons learned the rough composition of the atmosphere characteristics of their home and how this varies with the winds that come from different directions. The birds somehow can extrapolate this to unfamiliar places if they are set off-course or if they are taken by humans and released. This is exactly what ocean birds do out in the vast ocean.

            When pigeons get close to home the olfactory deprivation won’t have the same effect on its orientation and the bird is able to switch to another remarkable mechanism that focuses on visual cues. These new pieces of information are being uncovered before ourselves thanks to the evolution of technology. Scientists now can make use of thighs such as GPS which allow us to follow pigeons with high precision.

Other New Findings

            Another interesting finding is that pigeons that are released from the same places will soon learn a habitual route back home and stick to it even if this route is not the quickest. Every pigeon has its unique learning capabilities and sticks to different routes.  Most routes that the pigeon follows are those that are linear, such as field margins or roads. These routes are easier to learn than the complexity of the urban environment which in fact can be very tricky for pigeons to learn.

            If more pigeons are released from the same place at the same time, those who are more faithful to their own route are those who will likely emerge as the leaders of the flock. The pigeon navigation system is yet to be fully understood, but scientists are working hard to uncover pigeon secrets.


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