The Homing Pigeons...

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An urban legend exists that says birds lack the sense of smell, but we now know that some birds can smell extraordinarily well.

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Pigeons have about the same number of olfactory receptor cells as humans, so we think their smelling sensitivity is about equivalent to ours; however, they have about half again as many olfactory genes, meaning they can distinguish a much greater number of different smells. We've learned two interesting things about homing pigeons and smell. First, that pigeons reach their destination faster on days with higher air pollution. We learned this by analyzing the results of pigeon races held in polluted areas of China.

Homing Pigeons vs. Carrier Pigeons: Are They the Same? - My Passion For Science

Second, we learned that pigeons deprived of their sense of smell are unable to find their way home at all. In a model called the olfactory navigation hypothesis, pigeons spending most of their time at home learn the various smells brought in by the wind from different directions, and develop a sort of odor map of the region. One interpretation of this data is that the greater availability of smelly cues on a day high pollution gives them more data with which to read their odor map, so they find their way home more easily, and thus faster. Seasonal variance in their homing ability also correlate very well with blooming seasons.

Olfactory navigation appears to be the model with the most and best data. By no means is it conclusive, but it's probably safe to say that smell is likely the most significant sense employed by homing pigeons finding their way.

We know that vision also plays an important role, especially in following familiar routes. Other senses may also play some role, but we can't say how much. Perhaps the most significant factor that confounds a pigeon's ability to home is its age. Young pigeons have a much harder time making it back than older and more experienced ones. This strongly suggests that the ability is not simply innate, as many people think; but is based on technique that must be practiced and learned.

Pigeons less than three years old who make it back to their homes almost always do so in the company of more experienced pigeons over three years old. Sight and smell are probably the most important tools the pigeons use, and some of the other senses discussed probably also contribute. They use what we call a multifactorial navigational system, based on multiple types of input. It requires practice and experience to use well. It is complicated and does not rely on the single magic bullet of some mysterious animal ability that appeals to our native tendency toward the naturalistic fallacy.

One other thing we can say: that biological compasses reading the Earth's magnetic field are certainly not pigeons' most important mechanism, and may in fact play no role at all. I will end this episode with one of my usual admonitions. Next time you see an article in the news saying that the mystery of how birds navigate has finally been solved, please do not email it to me and say "Hey! It's been solved! You'll almost certainly learn that one new study has found some weak effect, and it's probably one we've already discussed here.

Really it will be just one more piece of a large and complicated puzzle that we may never fully perfect. Hopefully, the complete answer is waiting in the wings. Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

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Cite this article: Dunning, B. Skeptoid Media, 14 Jun Averett, N. National Audubon Society, 1 Jan. Blaser, N. Gagliardo, A. Hagstrum, J.

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    Live Shows Calendar Information. How Do Homing Pigeons Navigate? Visual When released from the same location, pigeons will learn a preferred route and stick to it, even if it's not a straight line. Gravity One of the more controversial proposals is that pigeons and some other birds may use gravity maps to orient themselves.

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    Auditory Nobody seems to have figured much out about how pigeons might use hearing to navigate, but there is some evidence that shows certain sounds can disrupt their ability to home. Magnetic A lot of animals have various parts of their anatomy containing magnetic crystals, but few of them show any definite use. Olfactory Some of the newer and more interesting discoveries in pigeon homing ability have been in the field of smell. Age Perhaps the most significant factor that confounds a pigeon's ability to home is its age. Email me about new episodes:. Recent episodes received support from: Post a job for free.

    Experimental treatments aimed at manipulating the olfactory system were effective at sites of cluster 1 but not at others. This analysis supports the idea that the navigation system of the homing pigeon is redundant, involving several qualitatively or quantitatively different kinds of information. Depending on ontogenetic experience of the pigeon and environmental circumstances, the different kinds of information might be weighted differently in different regions, at different sites or even at the same site by different pigeons.

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