July 25, 2013 — It is a fascinating phenomenon that homing pigeons always find their way home. A doctoral student in biology at the University of Zurich has now carried out experiments proving that pigeons have a spatial map and thus possess cognitive capabilities. In unknown territories, they recognize where they are in relation to their loft and are able to choose their targets themselves.
Homing pigeons fly off from an unknown place in unfamiliar territory and still manage to find their way home. Their ability to find their way home has always been fascinating to us humans. Despite intensive research, it is not yet definitively clear where this unusual gift comes from. All we know is that homing pigeons and migratory birds determine their flight direction with the help of Earth's magnetic field, the stars and the position of the sun. As Nicole Blaser, a doctoral student in biology at the University of Zurich demonstrates in the Journal of Experimental Biology, homing pigeons navigate using a mental map.
Navigating like a robot or cognitive capabilities?
Research proposes two approaches to explain how homing pigeons can find their home loft when released from an unfamiliar place. The first version assumes that pigeons compare the coordinates of their current location with those of the home loft and then systematically reduce the difference between the two until they have brought the two points together. If this version is accurate, it would mean that pigeons navigate like flying robots. The second version accords the pigeons a spatial understanding and "knowledge" of their position in space relative to their home loft. This would presuppose a type of mental map in their brain and thus cognitive capabilities. Up until now, there has not been any clear evidence to support the two navigation variants proposed.