How Do Homing Pigeons Home

With the barn swallows back this Spring and being quarrelsome for about 45 minutes prior to day break, I am reminded that many birds fly long distances and come back to the place they started.

Pigeons are a little different in that they are definitely “home birds” and we have regular competitions where we take them somewhere that they haven’t been before and tell them to go home. Big money can change hands for the best birds.

It has long been a question as to how do homing pigeons home? The favorite idea is that they have a compass stashed away, but exactly where has been the subject of speculation. No more!  Dickman and Wu of Baylor have cracked it. The BBC has a full report (1) on their recent paper in Science (2) in which they report that the bird brains have room for a very sophisticated magnetic field sensor.

Apparently, each pigeon has 53 neurons that fire up in response to magnetic field changes. They measured the electrical signals from the individual neurons as the bird was held in a magnetic field that was varied in direction and magnitude.

Sharks, whales and bats also use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate by, so this ability seems to be fairly widespread and leads one to wonder if many men think that they also can do this, and that is why real men don’t stop driving and ask for directions. Their success is clearly the reason that their female passengers demanded that the GPS for automobiles be invented.


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