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Pigeons seem to be everywhere; in parks, in the cities, out in the countryside, and when you learn that there are as many as 400 million of these birds in the world, it’s easy to see why they’re everywhere you look.
But pigeons aren’t only famous for their abundance; they’re also well known for their homing abilities. These intelligent birds seem to be able to find their way from A to B more reliably than some satnavs. But how do they do it? Let’s find out.
How do Pigeons Navigate?
The amazing thing about pigeons is that they have several different methods of navigation. These things combined mean that they’re always able to find their way.
I was recently driving somewhere that I was only about 60% sure of the location, but I decided to forgo my smartnav. However, towards the end of my journey, I suddenly knew I was on the right track because there was a very recognizable building. Humans often use landmarks to help them find their way, and pigeons are no different.
In fact, the more complex the landscape, the more easily pigeons are able to navigate, according to one study that took place in Oxford, England. It showed that when there were no defining features in the landscape, the pigeons weren’t as easily able to find their way as when there were landmarks like hedges and buildings.
Even more interesting was that these pigeons were seen to be following roads. With cameras attached to their backs, researchers watched them fly down motorways and around city ring roads in order to reach their destinations.
In other research, the ability to fly when relying on the sun was taken away, and yet these amazing birds were still able to find their way using nothing but the landmarks they recognized!
Humans have used the sun to determine direction for hundreds, if not thousands of years. But did you know that pigeons are also able to use our star as a compass?
Pigeons have an in-built magnetic compass that works with the magnetic pull of the earth (I’ll cover this in more detail in the next section.) When there is some interruption in this, perhaps because of things like solar winds, pigeons revert to using the arc of the sun to find their way.
Earth’s Magnetic Fields
Many birds have used what is known as magnetoreception to navigate and this is something we see in pigeons. For many years, scientists believed that there were iron particles within the pigeon’s beak that reacted to the magnetic pull of the earth, but further research has shown that the process may be much more complex.
It’s now been discovered that there are brainstem cells located within the pigeon’s inner ear which are activated during exposure to a magnetic field. Depending on the intensity, the brain is then able to figure out direction and polarity, guiding the pigeon home.
But it’s not the ears that aid this amazing sense of direction alone, the pigeon’s eyes are also involved. Researchers at a university in China have discovered that there are proteins in the retinas that actually contain iron and sulfur particles that react to the magnetic pull of the earth.
The olfactory system is a fancy term for your sense of smell and it’s something that many animals rely on for a variety of reasons. Where pigeons, and some other birds, are concerned, the olfactory system can help with navigation.
According to research, it would seem that pigeons can recognize local smells which helps them to find their way home. More interestingly, it was attempted to recreate these smells synthetically, but the pigeons did not react in the same way.
Other studies aimed to confirm the use of the olfactory system in pigeon navigation by rendering the sense of smell of some birds useless, while leaving others intact. Unsurprisingly, it was only the birds that were able to use their sense of smell that made it to their destination.
How Smart are Pigeons?
Most people complain about pigeons and they’re often seen as nothing more than a flying nuisance. However, these birds are much more fascinating than we give them credit for, especially when it comes to how intelligent they are.
There has been a lot of research into how smart these birds are, and the results are consistent; pigeons have amazing cognition. In fact, if you thought your pet dog was smart, you might be surprised to learn that a pigeon is even more intelligent!
One of the things that demonstrates this is a pigeon’s ability to pass the mirror test. This test involves an animal being able to recognize its own reflection which is something that both chimps and dolphins have both been successful at as well. However, much to the amazement of dog owners all over the world, our four-legged friends simply cannot do this.
Further tests have been carried out on pigeons which have shown that they have a concept of space and time. During these studies, pigeons demonstrated an understanding between the length of a line and the duration it was shown on a computer screen. Essentially, the results proved that both notions were processed in the same part of the brain, which is just how primates’ brains work. Moreover, during studies, it’s been shown that pigeons learn in a very similar way to humans.
What’s more, there have been studies that have shown pigeons’ ability to recognize and learn human words as well as being able to tell one artist’s work from another! That’s right, in tests, pigeons were successfully able to differentiate between the works of Monet and Picasso; I’m pretty sure that even some humans would struggle with this!
How have Pigeons been Used throughout the Centuries
Pigeons are so intelligent, and humans have picked up on this. Over hundreds of years, we humans have relied on these birds for a multitude of reasons.
I’ve sometimes heard people complaining about the speed of their internet by saying things like it would have been quicker to have sent that email by carrier pigeon, suggesting that this would be a very slow way of delivering a message.
Alright, pigeons might not be as quick as your fiber optic broadband but they’re much faster than most people would have thought. For example, it’s been shown that if a pigeon is placed 400 miles (644 km) from home in an unknown location, they will return within 24 hours!
This speed and accuracy have served humans well over the years by using these birds to send and receive messages. And this isn’t something we’ve started to understand in recent years; there’s evidence to suggest that the ancient Romans and Persians first started training these birds as messengers more than 2000 years ago.
In the 1600s, sailors would use pigeon post to deliver messages to merchants and there have been reports of similar ‘postal’ services throughout history. One of the most notable uses of pigeons for carrying messages is by the military. Even in 19th century France, during the Siege of Paris, military leaders once again found the value of using pigeon post.
The process of using a pigeon as a messenger is so easy. The birds are shipped to a location in a cage where the message is rolled up and attached to their leg. The pigeon is then released, and it will find its way home, delivering the message to the person waiting on the other end.
Throughout history, it isn’t only messages that pigeons have transported. In the early 1900s, a German pharmacy trained pigeons to carry greater weights so that they would be able to transport emergency medication.
The First and Second World Wars are among some of the most notorious conflicts in recent history and are things that we certainly don’t want to repeat. While these wars were filled with horrors, there were also some pretty amazing things going on, and that’s where our winged friends swept in to save the day.
One of the most heartwarming stories of the Second World War was the sending of messages between the Girl Guides and the then Princess Elizabeth (the late Queen Elizabeth II) and her sister Princess Margaret in an effort to encourage the head of the Girl Guides to raise money for these incredible birds.
In terms of military use, pigeons were used to carry messages, and in some cases, they were responsible for saving people’s lives. For example, one famous homing pigeon, GI Joe, prevented an air raid from taking place after speeding home with a message to call things off.
In fact, the use of pigeons during World War II was so prominent that many hobbyists ended up donating their pigeons to the war effort. These birds were closely protected and there was even a cull of coastal birds of prey to ensure that incoming pigeons were not predated.
Famous Carrier Pigeons
It’s evident that pigeons are incredibly intelligent birds and that they have achieved some amazing things over the years. However, it’s usually other animals that steal the limelight when it comes to fame; Lassie, Keiko the killer whale, Dolly the sheep…need I go on? But there are some famous pigeons that deserve their moment in the spotlight.
Cher Ami – Donated to the US Signal Army Corps by the British, Cher Ami was a pigeon that worked hard in the First World War. Despite having sustained significant injuries, this brave bird continued with his journey, delivering an important message to cease fire and effectively saving the lives of a battalion of more than 200 soldiers!
G.I. Joe – In World War II, the British were about to bomb a German town after the German Military had opened fire. However, they unexpectedly withdrew, meaning there was no need for the imminent invasion. With radio communications down, someone had to get the message to the British soldiers, and that someone was G.I. Joe. This amazing pigeon dashed across the 20 mile (32 km) distance at 60 mph (97 km/h) to deliver the message in the nick of time.
William of Orange – It’s believed that William of Orange’s work in WW2, saved as many as 2000 lives. His greatest feat was during a breakdown of communication between the Allies during the Battle Of Arnhem. For this, he was awarded the Dickin Medal.
Winkie – When it comes to saving lives, Winkie holds the crown! This pigeon was sent by four men in World War II who were stranded in the ocean after their bomber went down. The bird made its way back home where its owner was able to alert the RAF, who used Winkie’s arrival time to determine which plane had gone down and where!
Mary of Exeter – Having joined the National Pigeon Service in 1940, Mary of Exeter earned her fame for the number of military missions she took part in. Even after sustaining a serious injury that required 22 stitches to her neck, this incredible bird was serving again within just two months. Because of her service and longevity, Mary of Exeter was awarded the Dickin Medal for Outstanding War Service.
Why do Pigeons Bob their Heads when they Walk?
It would be impossible not to notice the unusual gait of the pigeon whose head bobs as it walks. It may be super cute, but it does have you wondering why they move in this way.
Interestingly, the reason for this is image stabilization. A pigeon moves its head forward between each step to ensure that its surroundings appear balanced. In studies where pigeons have been placed on a treadmill, the environment is already stable, and they don’t bob their heads.
Not only does doing this provide the birds with depth perception and stability but it’s also thought that helps them to retain their balance.
It can be confusing to wrap your head around but think about the pigeon head bob in the same way that we move our eyes to stabilize our vision and it becomes a lot easier to understand.
Why are Racing Pigeons so Expensive?
If you’re thinking about taking up pigeon racing as a hobby then you might want to start saving your pennies. Racing pigeons are among some of the priciest birds on the market, and the most expensive one ever sold fetched a whopping $1.8 million!
New Kim is a female pigeon from Belgium that now holds the world record for being the most expensive pigeon ever sold. She won the title of ‘Best Bird’ in Belgium back in 2018 and while we know that she was trained by 74-year-old Gaston van der Wouwer, not much is known about the buyer other than his internet nickname; Hitman and the fact that he is from China.
Before this, the record for the most expensive pigeon sold was $1.42 million, which is a bit of a difference but still a huge amount of money. Even some of the more affordable, expensive birds sell for hundreds of thousands. For example, Bolt, another belgium pigeon, this time male, who sold for $400,000.
But this begs the question why racing pigeons are so expensive. They’re incredibly common birds and yes, they have to be trained, but surely you could just capture a wild pigeon and train it, right?
Well, unfortunately, that’s not the case. These birds are highly prized, and this is nothing new. Back in Roman and Egyptian times, pigeons were used as messengers and even back then, they had a high price tag which seems to have stuck.
With pigeon racing having taken off massively in places like China, people are clamoring to get their hands on the best birds. This is not only because they’re guaranteed to perform well but also because owning an expensive pigeon is something of a status symbol.