Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Short Story About Homing Pigeons

Note: I promised someone I would blog about this a while ago. It's paraphrased from The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr.

Nobody knows how homing pigeons work. They're still in use by some navies and still a mystery to us. It's been theorized that they just have an amazing sense of direction, but if you transport them in a dark container, spinning them all around and upside down in the process, then release them, they can still find their way home.

Luca Turin became acquainted with a scientist who wondered if they are somehow "connected" to their home base by a kind of invisible string or band. He had an idea that you could test this theory by, instead of just moving the pigeons, moving their home. In his proposed experiment, you'd raise the pigeons on a ship, take them away, and then relocate the ship. Would the pigeons fly back to the ship, or back to the original port?

Turin thought this was a fascinating experiment, and via his connections he managed to secure funding for it. But, to his great disappointment, the scientist declined.

Was he afraid the results wouldn't be interesting?


  1. Fascinating, thanks! I remember that something similar was tried on ants, see e.g. this [I link to this with some hesitation, as I've come to realize that the Economist's science coverage is horribly unreliable].

  2. One theory arising from research in recent years suggests that homing pigeons navigate by way of tiny magnetic particles in their upper beaks. The particles are apparently connected to the pigeons' brains by a specific nerve, and they enable the birds to sense the earth's magnetic field. In effect, they have built-in magnetic compasses in their bodies.

    An article about this, in the website from 2004, is here. It gives some details about some research experiments that appear to offer evidence for the magnetic navigation theory.

    The article also mentions that rainbow trout have been found to have similar magnetic particles in their bodies, which are also connectect to their brains by the same nerve, and the trout also apparently use the magnetic particles for navigation.

  3. Thanks for the links! Just read the ant one. Poor semi-amputated ants.

    I've heard the magnetic theory, too, but my understanding is that it's still unclear, however their compass works, how they know where their home is. Maybe the "pedometer" theory (for the ants) is applicable -- which would suggest the pigeons would fly back to the port, not to the boat ...

  4. Isn't it sad, that this scientist is to afraid to test his theory. He doesn't seem to trust his own work. Apparently he feels safer in limbo than either acknowledged or disproved.