Homing pigeons eschew natural nav abilities – follow roads instead

From Ocean Navigator #138
May/June 2004
Human beings are not the only animals to develop new tools for navigation,

apparently. A new study by a group of British scientists discovered that homing pigeons flying over land tend to follow main roads, even using intersections and rotaries, when navigating their way toward a destination.

The 10-year study by Oxford University zoologists used GPS tags to discover that the term “as the crow flies” no longer refers to the shortest distance between two points, according to a report in the (London) Daily Telegraph. Crows and other diurnal birds have also been implicated in the use of roads for navigation, a practice that takes longer than simply flying strait to the destination.

“It really has knocked our research team sideways to find that after a decade-long international study, pigeons appear to ignore their inbuilt directional instincts and follow the road system,” Professor Tim Guilford of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology told the Daily Telegraph.

Pigeons still use their natural homing abilities to navigate over water, apparently using an internal compass to establish sun and star bearings, according to the study, but they revert to the easier method of flying by sight when the option is presented.

When “homing pigeons have flown a journey more than once (over land), they home in on a habitual route home, much as we do when we are driving or walking home from work,” Guilford said. “In short, it looks like it is mentally easier for a bird to fly down a road and then turn right. They are just making their journey as simple as possible.”

Guilford and his colleagues affixed GPS receivers to pigeons’ backs to perform dozens of tests in Oxfordshire, England. The animals were released from their lofts between 10 and 20 miles from their destinations. The pigeons flew straight down the A34 Oxford bypass.

“It was almost comical watching one group of birds that we released near a major A-road. They followed the road to the first junction, where they all turned right, and a couple of junctions on, they all turned left,” Guilford said. “We even had one bird flying down the road, going round the roundabout, taking one of the turnings down that to another roundabout, then leaving the road.”

By Ocean Navigator