Nov. 5, 2013 — Homing pigeons, like other birds, are extraordinary navigators, but how they manage to find their way back to their lofts is still debated. To navigate, birds require a 'map' (to tell them home is south, for example) and a 'compass' (to tell them where south is), with the sun and the earth's magnetic field being the preferred compass systems. A new paper provides evidence that the information pigeons use as a map is in fact available in the atmosphere: odors and winds allow them to find their way home.
The results are now published in Biogeosciences, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).
Experiments over the past 40 years have shown that homing pigeons get disoriented when their sense of smell is impaired or when they don't have access to natural winds at their home site. But many researchers were not convinced that wind-borne odors could provide the map pigeons need to navigate. Now, Hans Wallraff of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, has shown that the atmosphere does contain the necessary information to help pigeons find their way home.